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Morning Coffee: CHL seeks financial aid, Coyotes have front office drama, and more

Morning Coffee is a weekly column about interesting stories from around the league, brought to you by NATIONCOFFEE. 

The day is finally here. NHL players are set to travel to their respective hub cities of either Edmonton or Toronto today and exhibition games are set to get underway on Tuesday.

The Oilers wrapped up camp on Saturday with the Colby Cave Memorial Fund Scrimmage, in which each player took to the ice wearing Cave’s No. 12. The jerseys worn by the Oilers on Saturday will be auctioned off by the team and funds will be used to support community programs with an emphasis on mental health initiatives and providing access to sports for underprivileged children. It was a touching way for the Oilers to honour Cave and his family.

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Some notes from the scrimmage…

  • Dave Tippett was non-committal when it came to the topic of which goaltender, Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith, would be starting against the Blackhawks in Game 1. Tippett has stated that he plans to use both goaltenders in the playoffs, but I would still lean to the veteran Smith getting the nod off the hop.
  • Darnell Nurse didn’t play in the scrimmage, but watched from the stands. He got tangled up with Kailer Yamamoto during a drill on Thursday and left the ice favouring one of his legs. Another minor injury update, Riley Sheahan left the scrimmage and joined Nurse in the stands. Both are expected to be precautionary.
  • Philip Broberg capped off an incredibly impressive camp by scoring a nice goal. While the plan was just to bring him to camp for Phase 3, it seems now that he’s earned his way on to the Oilers’ roster for Phase 4. I doubt he’ll play a game in the playoffs, but this will undoubtedly be a positive experience for him.

In other news, Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford, who had been absent throughout the entirety of the team’s training camp, finally returned to the ice on Saturday. It’s been reported that Crawford will join Chicago as they travel to Edmonton, though he might not be ready for Game 1 next week.

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Elsewhere…

According to Rick Westhead at TSN, the Canadian Hockey League is seeking money from the Canadian Federal Government due to worry that some teams could be forced out of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CHL was forced to suspend its 2019-20 season, playoffs, and the Memorial Cup because of the pandemic and there isn’t any certainty that the league will be able to return in 2020-21. While the NHL could operate a season without fans in the seats due to its television deal, gate-driven leagues like the CHL won’t have that ability.

This is certainly a challenging time for the CHL. A couple of months ago, the league settled the six-year minimum-wage class-action lawsuit for a total of $30 million. Reportedly, each CHL team was on the hook for approximately $250,000 in damages. The league is also now facing another possible lawsuit around issues of hazing.

While some teams will be able to navigate this storm, like the Edmonton Oil Kings who are owned by the Oilers, a handful of other smaller teams are barely able to break even at the best of times and are at a legitimate risk of folding.

The WHL is committed to returning to play for the 2020-21 season come October, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee anything. The WHL is also preparing for the worst-case scenario, which is the league suspending operations for the entire season.

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As I said earlier, the NHL is able to push through the challenge of the pandemic because of its financial muscle. When it comes to lower-level leagues, that simply isn’t the case. So while the NHL will surely find a way to execute its 2020-21 season, it’s difficult to determine what’s going to happen with hockey’s lower leagues.

Where are the top prospects going to play if there isn’t a CHL season? Can there still be a World Junior Championship? Or some kind of top prospect super series? What about the AHL, another gate-driven league without as much money attached to it? Some AHL teams are owned by their NHL parent club, but some aren’t. There’s a massive domino effect when it comes to leagues not being able to operate as normal through the pandemic.

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Take a look at Major League Baseball, for example. They’re the first of the four major North American sports to start a season during the pandemic. Given that minor-league baseball can’t function without fans, MLB is having teams carry a 60-man pool in which top prospects can practice with the organization at an alternate training spot. If the AHL can’t operate as usual, maybe the NHL could do something similar.

Another thing to consider is the possibility of players jumping overseas to play professionally in Europe. The Red Wings are currently negotiating terms to loan both forwards to HC Oceláři Třinec of the Czech League. Hurricanes prospect Jack Drury is reportedly heading to the Swedish Hockey League because he anticipates the NCAA season won’t happen.

There’s plenty of time to get things sorted out, of course, but finding places for everyone to play will be yet another difficult challenge for general managers in the coming months. But what will happen with undrafted prospects who were set to play Junior hockey this year is anybody’s guess at this point.

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Another interesting story developing this week is the apparent end of John Chayka’s time in Arizona. Back in 2016, the micro-stat-tracking-oriented Chayka became the youngest general manager in NHL history at the age of 26. Four years later with a new ownership group in place and the Coyotes still trudging through mediocrity, it looks like the organization is ending the experiment.

Taylor Hall, Arizona’s most important impending free agent, having a meeting with top executives from the organization and Chayka not being involved is a fairly obvious sign that the two sides are headed for a divorce. According to Elliotte Friedman, Chayka has “gone dark” and hasn’t replied to any requests for comments on the story.

The Coyotes, at this point, are loaded with questionable contract commitments with a ho-hum roster, so it isn’t overly surprising that they want to move in a different direction.