As the calendar is on the verge of changing from June to July, hockey continues to inch closer to an official return. Following a bizarre first part of the perplexing NHL Draft Lottery that will somehow reward a team that made the expanded playoff format with expected top pick Alexis Lafreniere, the league gets ready hopefully to return at the end of July.
With training camps supposed to start on July 10, the Play In round that’ll involve 16 of the 24 teams is ticketed for July 31. That would be the intriguing best of five preliminary series which feature eight match-ups. Four in the East and four out West. They still haven’t officially revealed the two host cities. Although we know one is going to be Las Vegas, which wisely will be the hub for the Eastern teams, there are still questions surrounding what city will host the West. There are issues with Vancouver due to the 14-day rule on anyone entering. It’s looking like Chicago or Columbus could wind up with the West participants. Or perhaps Toronto.
While many fans are excited for the return of the cool sport, there are some concerns including players who have tested positive for the Coronavirus. Auston Matthews was revealed by the Maple Leafs as the biggest name with COVID-19. They didn’t follow protocol. Why who knows. But hopefully, the 47-goal scorer will be fully recovered by the time camp rolls around. He’s self isolated and has likely been retested.
What if some players have the pandemic as the tournament unfolds? Obviously, having expanded rosters can help. They’ll have to be extra careful to test everyone and do daily temperature checks. This is a full contact sport where players will go through a wall to help their teams win in the playoffs. Well, at least most should. It’ll be interesting to follow which players go above and beyond after basically a four month layoff in the middle of the summer. A totally different scenario than what they’re used to.
While you do have to worry about containing the virus so they can complete the 2019-20 season and award a Stanley Cup winner this Fall, there is another pressing issue that nobody is talking about. Well, except for Rangers MVP candidate Artemi Panarin. In a ballsy move, the electrifying Russian superstar who led his new team with a career high 95 points including 32 goals, 63 assists with a plus-36 rating to top all NHL forwards, put out a statement via Instagram and Twitter on escrow that he feels very strongly about.
In regards to escrow which has increased owners’ pockets with added revenue, he’s correct. The players don’t get as much of their full salaries due to the agreement on the partnership in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Something former Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews alluded to. It’s noteworthy that the 28-year old former Blackhawks teammate of Toews feels it’s important for the escrow issue to be resolved before the NHLPA reports to camp. Will they actually come out in support of the Bread Man, or is just returning and playing enough? We’ll see what happens.
New York Post scribe Larry Brooks has long been a proponent of the players. He’s basically the mouthpiece of the NHLPA, always going on the attack against the NHL when it comes to the topic of escrow. While I am not a big fan of the veteran writer, he occasionally raises good points in his Sunday column Slap Shots. When he doesn’t fly off the wall like his insistence on including Henrik Lundqvist in the same conversation with Martin Brodeur as the best number 30, which even Blueshirts supporters know is preposterous, Mr. Brooks can still be a interesting read.
While I do agree that the escrow needs to be fixed for the long-term relationship between the players and owners, I feel the timing of Panarin’s bold statement is off. I think hockey will win out here. Most players want to play. The next CBA will decide if anything changes. At least they have a better working relationship than Major League Baseball.
My feeling is that once camps hopefully start up, this topic will go away. It’s too imperative that they finish the season. There’s a lot at stake. Particularly with revenue. Nobody wants there to be no conclusion to what was an exciting year where you had as many as five Hart Trophy candidates. The Oilers duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Boston superstar David Pastrnak. Panarin, who Avalanche MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon endorsed. Plus Sabres do everything center Jack Eichel, who likely will finish fifth or sixth due to another playoff miss in Buffalo.
Who knows what will happen with the expanded format. Sure. You’ll have strong favorites like the Bruins, Lightning, Blues and Avalanche entering the Stanley Cup phase. However, you don’t really know how it’ll turn out. Four months is a long time to go without playing games. Maybe one of the survivors of the Play In round can make a run. The Rangers will be taking on the Hurricanes. That should be good. Other series to follow include the Blue Jackets and Leafs, Canucks and Wild, and Jets versus Flames.
What about which team falls short in this preliminary round? What lucky loser will wind up winning Part Two of the Draft Lottery? Someone will get Lafreniere. It doesn’t seem fair. I’ll have more on that in my next post.