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Photo Credit: Edmonton Oilers/Twitter

Training Camp: What to Expect

Let’s be honest. We don’t know if this is going to work. Will the Stanley Cup be awarded in late September or early October for the first time in NHL history?

I am excited and fascinated to see what happens.

The reality of how much different this training camp is from any of the previous 19 I’ve covered was apparent from the moment I read the NHL media guidelines. Protocol requires all media to wear a mask, there will be no face-to-face interviews, media access to the building is limited and we all need to sit six feet apart while we watch practice from the second level.

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We don’t know if the 24 teams will fly to Toronto and Edmonton, the two hub cities for the 2020 playoffs, in two weeks time, but it is accurate to say the NHLPA and NHL have done their due diligence in an attempt to create a safe, and mainly isolated, abode which will hopefully protect the players and staff physically and mentally. Today the NHL looks to be in a good position, but it is important to note its players across the 24 training camps who aren’t on the ice for day one of training camp.

It will lead to immediate speculation due to the NHL’s questionable decision not to announce positive COVID test results. Just because an Edmonton Oilers player isn’t on the ice this morning, doesn’t mean he won’t be later in camp or at the start of the playoffs, nor does it mean the bubble isn’t working. We know some players have tested positive dating back to as far as late March. Some have tested positive since arriving in their team’s city for training camp, and they won’t be on the ice today. Until they clear their two-week isolation after testing positive, and then hopefully have no lingering health issues, they won’t be back on the ice.

I suspect you will see some people take to social media and proclaim the playoffs won’t happen because there are players absent in various markets when training camps begin. The truth is no one knows, but don’t overreact when some players aren’t skating. This is to be expected. Players were going to test positive. They are part of society. No one is immune to this, even when we follow every precaution set out by medical experts.

I disagree with the NHL and NHLPA’s decision to not announce positive tests. We shouldn’t place a stigma on anyone who tests positive. They haven’t done anything wrong, and the secrecy will only lead to speculation. Last Friday, Tampa Bay GM, Julien Brisebois, announced Steven Stamkos suffered a lower body injury, but should be ready to play later in camp. Why should that be any different than a GM saying their player tested positive and he will return later in camp?

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I’d say the majority of players not on the ice for day one of training camp this morning are absent because they tested positive. Once the playoffs begin and a player isn’t on the ice for a practice, it is less likely it is COVID, and more likely an injury from playing. But because of the lack of transparency, there will be speculation. Maybe the NHL wants that, but I find it counterproductive. Plus, with their new contract with MGM FanDuel and other gambling sites, I am confident the NHL will be letting those partners know which players are actually injured or not.

Regardless, I’m excited for the return of hockey. I missed it. And I’m sure you did too.

WHAT WILL WE SEE ON DAY ONE?

Nov 24, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We won’t see Mike Green. He opted out and the Oilers will have 10 defenceman in camp. Philip Broberg is here, and it is likely he returns to Sweden once camp is over, but with Green opting out I wonder if the Oilers will want 10 D-men during the playoffs, at least for the first few series. Who will start in the third pair is the only question concerning the blue line. I’ll go with Kris Russell and Matt Benning. Caleb Jones will be in the mix, and he will likely play at some point in the playoffs, but barring an injury to Russell or Benning they will begin game one.

Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith return in goal. Smith started more games in 2020, so he seems the odds on favourite to start game one, but I think there is a good chance we see both goalies in the postseason.

The right wingers seem set with Zack Kassian, Kailer Yamamoto, Josh Archibald and Alex Chiasson.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Riley Sheahan will play centre. Jujhar Khaira and Gaetan Haas will battle for the fourth line centre spot, but Khaira has the inside track due to his play on the PK.

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Left wing has the most questions. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, James Neal, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis are likely the four who start game one of the playoffs, but on which lines?

RNH did play two games with McDavid prior to the season being delayed. However, in the previous 26 games he was part of the most productive line in the NHL with Draisaitl and Yamamoto, so it would make sense to reunite that trio for the playoffs.

Which leaves the golden spot up for grabs — riding shotgun on McDavid’s left wing.

McDavid played 1,055 minutes at 5×5 this season. Kassian skated the most with McDavid, 663 minutes, this season, and likely starts on the right side, while Neal (225 min), Ennis (68 min) and Athanasiou (44 min) spent less TOI with McDavid.

Ennis and Athanasiou didn’t spend enough time to get an accurate sample size, but Neal had the best combined CF%, FF% and SF% of the three with McDavid while Athanasiou had the best scoring chance % and GF%. I could see head coach Dave Tippett giving each of them a look with McDavid during training camp.

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And whoever starts game one on McDavid’s left wing on August 1st isn’t guaranteed to remain there for the entire playoffs, or even the entire series against Chicago. Just before the season was postponed Tippett was starting to experiment with different combinations. It was why he tried RNH with McDavid, and also why Khaira got a few games at centre. He wanted to see how those combinations worked, or how individuals reacted to a new role.

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The playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. Tippett has had over two months to prepare for the Chicago Blackhawks. When I spoke to him in early June he was already preparing different scenarios. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to tip his hat to which combinations he would use. He admitted this camp is a bit different than a regular training camp, because you won’t know how much training players did.

In a normal off-season head coaches are confident their players will come to camp in good shape. You assume it is the same now, but Tippett admitted some players were able to skate more than others, so there is a bit of uncertainty of how comfortable the players will feel on the ice.

It might take a player a few days to feel good, while others like Chiasson, Russell, Benning and a few others have been skating for over six weeks.

The unknown makes this camp unique, but the flip side is Tippett doesn’t have to teach a new system to any players. They know the system. There are no new faces, either via trade, free agency or a new prospect coming to camp looking for a spot. There will be no auditions, simply competition among known commodities and that makes things a bit more predictable for head coaches.

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UNKNOWNS…

Because of this unprecedented situation, many questions remain.

What quality of play will we see in August?

Will we see an increase in injuries, specifically tissue-related ones?

How will the players react with no fans in the stands?

What will the broadcasts look like?

I do know one thing: Today is an important first step and hopefully we reach the next big step on August 1st, and ultimately the final step — awarding the Stanley Cup.

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR