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Bettman on halting 2019-20 NHL season, getting ‘creative’ with playoff format

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With concern over the COVID-19 outbreak growing both internationally and here in North America, the NHL took steps to prevent the spread of the virus Thursday, shutting down the season for the time being until it’s deemed safe to bring fans, players and staff together again.

It’s an unprecedented move for the League and the sports world at large, as seemingly every major sporting league and event has come to a halt in the wake of COVID-19’s impact. Speaking with Sportsnet 590’s Brian Burke, Jeff Marek, Anthony Stewart and Justin Bourne on Hockey Central, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shed light on the league’s thinking leading up to the decision to halt play.

“We had, throughout the last few weeks, been constantly analyzing what was evolving, what the situation was, and what our responses need to be, and what all the possible contingencies could be,” Bettman said Friday. “We were exploring whether or not it was going to reach a point in time we needed to completely shut down, whether or not we needed to take a break, or how we would continue to play — whether it was in all empty buildings relative to fans, or in part-empty buildings, depending on what local jurisdictions were doing.

“But in all of those scenarios and in every discussion I would have, either internally or with clubs, particularly owners, I would always end it with the caveat, ‘You understand that if a player tests positive, we’re done for the time being, at least.’ So I always understood that to be the case.”

When Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert test positive for COVID-19, spurring an immediate hiatus from the NBA, the NHL felt it was best to follow suit and get ahead of a similar situation occurring in the hockey world.

“I said, ‘At this point, it’s inevitable that an NHL player at some point is going to test positive. We’re not going to get through this current season as scheduled, and we might as well just shut down now so that we don’t get to the point that we have to react the way the NBA did,’” Bettman recalled.

With the 2019-20 campaign now on hiatus with a timeline yet to be determined, and certainly not set in stone, the commissioner also detailed how he and the league’s senior staff are handling the situation.

“We have an internal task force that has been meeting two times a day, in the morning and afternoon, and we are exploring every contingency. We’re looking out in [the] calendar to see, ‘Well, what’s the last day we could be playing under other scenarios?’ and then backing it up. And then what are our options in the timeframe that’s available?” Bettman told Sportsnet 590.

“We’re doing all sorts of modelling, whether it’s completing the existing regular season as is and then a full playoffs, or whether or not based on time constraints we’re going to have to make adjustments and do something different, novel, creative.”

Bettman later elaborated on what that potential playoff format could look like if and when the league does return this season, with the post-season picture mostly in view but plenty of clubs still with room to have climbed back in had league play not been paused.

“We are looking at every contingency and what’s doable, so yes, everything – for consideration – is on the table,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that any of those are going to happen. I don’t want to speculate as to which direction we’re going in. We are analyzing every conceivable option that is available to us, and that’s not something that’s static. In other words, what’s an option today, there may be different options – fewer options, more options, who knows – next week.

“And so, my hope and expectation is that we can finish the season in some form, award the Stanley Cup, and then be able to move on knowing that we accomplished that goal of finishing the season for our fans.”

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Maple Leafs framing camp as competition for playoff roster – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – In an ordinary year, a healthy, established NHL player contributing to good team would face minimal risk of losing his job to a less-experienced player immediately before a playoff tournament.

Breaking: This is no ordinary year.

When coach Sheldon Keefe gathered his Toronto Maple Leafs Monday at the outset of Training Camp: Part Deux, he issued a firm message. Tryouts start now.

“We’ve got competition here for spots,” Keefe said. “To say that we were happy or satisfied with the way we were playing and where we were at as a team before the pause is just not the case. So, we’re challenging our players to push each other.”

Now, we’re pretty sure you should feel safe using permanent ink to scratch numbers like 34, 91 and 16 into your lineup card. But the taxi-squad invitees — headlined by Nick Robertson (locally known as the Greatest Talent to Never Play an NHL Shift) and featuring determined Marlies standouts Kenny Agostino, Adam Brooks and Nic Petan — aren’t just waiting curbside hoping for a fare.

Those hopefuls were among the first arrivals for Phase 2’s voluntary workouts, with Americans like Robertson and Agostino arriving weeks in advance to serve their mandatory 14-quarantine on this side of the border.

“My big thing is, you control what you can control in this game, and you just got to be ready for whenever that opportunity comes about,” an eager Agostino told me in late May before driving up from New Jersey. “You never know what the next year and a half could bring.”

Perhaps this theme of internal competition is being promoted to light a fire under some inconsistent third-line forwards and to accelerate the urgency necessary to leap into a best-of-five showdown versus super-motivator John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets on Aug. 2.

But Robertson & Co. are chasing that dangled carrot in earnest.

The sports-mad locals are starving for hockey and hope, so it makes sense the 18-year-old sniper’s practice highlights have already gone viral. He stripped our best defenceman of the puck! He lasered a couple by our best goalie!

“He’s a guy that’s going to continue to push. That’s just his nature,” Morgan Rielly says of Robertson. “So, it’s always good to have people like that on board.”

John Tavares marvels how the puck seems to follow Robertson around. Frederik Andersen is impressed by Robertson’s shiftiness and the release off his blade. GM Kyle Dubas zeroes in on the teenager’s mindset and approach.

“He wasn’t going to do what a lot of young players do, which is kinda tiptoe around on the ice and try to figure out what his place is. He’s going to come with the mindset that he’s going to leave it all out here and try to make the team,” Dubas explained on Tim and Sid Tuesday evening. “As some of the older, more veteran players sort of get back into their top form, how he responds to that is what we’re really looking for.”

What’s it going to take? Let’s just say the tie goes to the veteran.

“He needs to really show it, make it obvious that he’s ready,” Keefe said. “And he’s got some time to be able to do that.”

Not a ton.

The Leafs’ lone exhibition game (versus Montreal on July 28) is speeding at us faster than a forecheck. Starting Sunday, the players and bubble staff will enter a modified quarantine in which their lives must take place at home and at work (Ford Performance Centre) only.

Toronto has taken great pains to steepen its ramp-up to the tournament.

The franchise drew the most bodies of any franchise to its practice facility for Phase 2 and jumped directly into intensified, short-bench scrimmages (two lines aside) on Day 1 of camp. By Day 2, Keefe had COVID-clear officials participating on the ice to mimic the real deal.

By way of comparison, the Jackets aren’t scheduling their first scrimmage until later this week. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has yet to practice with his linemates. Boston superstar David Pastrnak didn’t join the main group until Wednesday. The virus has already thrown a wrench into the Pittsburgh and Tampa camps.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Absolutely, the Maple Leafs might get out-checked or out-defended. They could fumble the special-teams battle or not get enough saves. But the strict mandate is they won’t get out-prepared or out-conditioned.

Heck, on Wednesday they drop the puck on Game 1 of their own internal best-of-five series: Team Andersen vs. Team Matthews. Furthermore, the media will vote on a “Phase 3 Scrimmage Most Valuable Player” award. Seriously.

“Every rep that we have has got to be as close to game-like as we can, and the conditioning part of it creates some additional challenges because it’s really hard to do when you’re tired,” Keefe said. “Our hope is — whether it’s the two-line or the three-line effect at scrimmages — that by the time we get rolling with four lines, it feels a lot easier. Our hope is by the time we play the real games, it feels easier than anything we’ve gone through [at] this camp.”

And that is where the internal drive of Robertson, Agostino, Brooks and the other long shots becomes vital.

“These guys have been committed to come in and put in the work, so they’re here to challenge and compete,” Keefe said. “They’re either pushing to earn spots that are available if others don’t pull their weight, or they’re pushing just to make everyone better through their work in practices — and that’s the biggest thing for us.”

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NHLTopPlayers: Top Goalies, Nos. 10-6 – NHL.com

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From Stanley Cup champions to Vezina Trophy winners to all-stars, the NHL has many great goalies. NHL Network producers and analysts chose the top 10 goalies in the League right now, and Nos. 10-6 were revealed Tuesday in the first of an eight-part series featured on “NHL Tonight.” Here is the list:

10. Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars

Among NHL goalies who played at least 20 games this season, Khudobin was first in save percentage (.930) and tied for third in goals-against average (2.22). He was 16-8-4 and allowed two goals or fewer in 16 of his 26 starts to help the Stars qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Khudobin’s .926 save percentage over the past two seasons is tied for second in the NHL behind teammate Ben Bishop‘s .927.

“We’ve seen him be really solid [for the Boston Bruins],” NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp said. “Picks up right where he left off in Dallas, has been fantastic. He has a really good defensive team in front of him, but he’s been lights out. So right now, he’s got to be one of the top echelon in the League. He’s been dynamite.”

Video: EDM@DAL: Khudobin stops McDavid in overtime

9. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

Markstrom was 23-16-4 with a 2.75 GAA, a .918 save percentage and two shutouts in 43 games to help Vancouver reach the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, when they will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015. He was 5-0-3 with a 2.42 GAA and .921 save percentage from Oct. 9-Nov. 5, and then went 6-0-0 with a 2.49 GAA and .932 save percentage from Dec. 19-Jan. 4. Markstrom was a Vezina Trophy contender before missing eight games with a knee injury prior to the season being paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

“[Markstrom is] a pretty good example of a goaltender that can steal a series,” Rupp said. “This team is poised to be in the playoffs.”

Video: BOS@VAN: Markstrom turns away Krug, Pastrnak

8. Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights

Lehner was 3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA, a .940 save percentage and one shutout for the Golden Knights after being traded Feb. 24 by the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Prior to that, he was 16-10-5 with a 3.01 GAA and .918 save percentage in 33 games (31 starts) for the Blackhawks. Lehner’s best season in the NHL was 2018-19, when he was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA, a .930 save percentage and six shutouts in 46 games (43 starts). He won the William M. Jennings Trophy with teammate Thomas Greiss as the goalies on the NHL team that allowed the fewest regular-season goals.

“Robin Lehner is getting it done still, and when you look at this team and you look at Marc-Andre Fleury and him, what a tandem,” Rupp said. “There’s no weakness on this team here in Vegas, and the goaltenders are a big reason why. Big man, big saves he makes.”

Video: NJD@VGK: Lehner blanks Devils in 300th NHL game

7. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes

Kuemper was third in save percentage (.928) and tied for third in GAA (2.22) among NHL goalies who played at least 20 games this season. Limited to 29 games because of injury, he was 16-11-2 with two shutouts and helped the Coyotes advance to the Qualifiers, when they will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Over the past two seasons, Kuemper is 43-31-10 with seven shutouts and is second in the NHL in GAA (2.29) and tied for second in save percentage (.926).

“Now he’s got confidence, and that’s one thing,” Rupp said. “I played with him [with the Minnesota Wild from 2012-14] as a young player, and everybody kind of struggles with some confidence. He’s got it now. He’s been awesome this season.”

Video: ARI@VAN: Kuemper uses glove to rob Virtanen

6. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

His 348 wins are first in Canadiens history, and he went 27-25-6 to top 20 wins for the 10th time in 13 NHL seasons. Price had a 2.79 GAA, a .909 save percentage and four shutouts to help Montreal advance to the Qualifiers. He played 58 games, tying for the NHL lead with Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, faced the second-most shots (1,755; Hellebuyck, 1,796), and made the second-most saves (1,595; Hellebuyck, 1,656). Price led goalies in minutes played (3,439:49).

“There’s people that are going to be arguing he should be higher than this, in the top five,” Rupp said. “Nonetheless, Carey Price is still one of the great goaltenders of all time, just different opinions of where he is now today.”

Video: MTL@OTT: Price makes 30 stops in Canadiens’ 3-0 win

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Mailbag: Cup Qualifier intensity level, Blue Jackets goalie choice – NHL.com

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Do you think we’ll see teams come out of the gate banging bodies and playing with high intensity because everyone is rested and feeling good? — @SIickRick23

Without question, and not just because everyone is healthy and rested. 

I write that based on the comments I’ve heard from players in the past two days of training camp and from what I’ve seen watching the New York Rangers practice in person. There’s already an intensity that suggests the players and coaches understand they need to get up to speed quickly and test their limits. Rangers coach David Quinn said, “This isn’t training camp,” and he meant it; it’s not anything like what a traditional training camp is like, when there are 65 or so players broken up into groups on multiple ice sheets and veterans skating with players who have no realistic chance of being on the team that season. 

I specifically think the intensity level among teams playing in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers will be at playoff level. Though it’s technically not considered the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is a series between two teams with the winner moving on and the loser going home. You will see what we know of playoff hockey in those games. 

The round-robin games played by the top four teams in each conference might not have the same feel. Those might be more like the regular season because they do not present the potential of finality; those teams are moving on into the first round of the playoffs regardless of what happens.

Because of the contrast between the round-robin games and the games in the best-of-5 series, people think the teams that win each series will have the advantage in the first round, having already played with the intensity required to win in the playoffs. That can’t be manufactured even in round-robin play for seeding. And because they were just off for four months, nobody should be tired after playing a maximum of five games with zero travel. 

I believe in that argument and I think those teams will have an advantage, but through a seven-game series the best team usually comes out on top, and I don’t think that will be different. But without question we’ll see the intensity that we normally see in the playoffs. If you don’t bring it, you’ll be going home.

In your opinion, are the Columbus Blue Jackets at an advantage with their goaltender situation or is it a complication? Has there really been any playoff run recently where the goalies were switched back and forth? And neither Elvis Merzlikins nor Joonas Korpisalo has any NHL postseason experience. — @moonlighthaley

I don’t think it’s a detriment. Competition is good. But my preference would be to have one goalie I know I can rely on, the closest thing to a sure thing in my mind, with a backup I trust should my sure thing fail. 

Every coach is going to try to make the best of the situation he has available, and for Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella it looks like a win-win; each goalie is good and coming off a quality season. But neither, as you mentioned, has played in the NHL postseason, which makes it a pressure-filled choice. Choose wisely and I think the Blue Jackets will defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Qualifiers and advance. Choose poorly and my feeling is Columbus will be eliminated quickly by Toronto. But how do you choose when you don’t have history or recent games to base your decision on? Instead, you’re relying on practice, maybe an intrasquad scrimmage or two, and one exhibition game that won’t have near the intensity of the games the Blue Jackets will be playing against the Maple Leafs. It’s a tough call. That’s why I’d prefer one goalie I trust. That doesn’t mean you have to start him, but at least you know you can fall back to him, like the Washington Capitals did in 2018. Philipp Grubauer started Games 1 and 2 for Washington against Columbus in the Eastern Conference First Round; the Capitals lost twice and turned to Braden Holtby, who carried the Capitals the rest of the way to the Stanley Cup.

Video: DET@CBJ: Merzlikins denies Filppula with blocker

As for the second part of your question, in 2016, the Pittsburgh Penguins flipped to Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his first start since he sustained a concussion before the regular season ended. The Penguins lost 4-3 in overtime and went back to Matt Murray for Game 6. He started the rest of the way and Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. 

Usually, though, you’ll see a coach make one change and stick with it. It’ll either work or he’ll run out of time to make the second change. For example, there was the Grubauer to Holtby switch in 2018. It also worked in 2017, when Fleury played the first two rounds for Pittsburgh because Murray was injured in warmups for Game 1 against Columbus in the first round. Fleury got the Penguins through two rounds and two games in the conference final against the Ottawa Senators before Murray replaced him with 7:08 remaining in the first period of Game 3, after Fleury allowed four goals on nine shots. Murray helped Pittsburgh the rest of the way to its second straight Stanley Cup championship. Fleury never played again for the Penguins.

Is this the last hurrah for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and company? Does Penguins coach Mike Sullivan need to make the most of the opportunity now while the core is still intact? — @theashcity

Pittsburgh needs to make the most of this opportunity now because there’s no telling how much longer its talented core will remain intact, but you’re not going to hear me saying this is its last hurrah. 

Crosby scored 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games this season. The 32-year-old Penguins captain overcame core muscle surgery and remained one of the game’s elite players. I think he has a few more years left at the top of his game because he adjusts with the changing times and maintains his elite level of focus, conditioning, preparation and ability. Also, he’s not a player who relies on one elite skill, like speed or a shot. His overall game is still the best in the NHL and will remain so for a while. 

Malkin had a terrific rebound season, scoring 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 55 games after scoring 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 68 games last season. Nothing there suggests to me the center, who turns 34 on July 31, is nearing the end. And Letang, for all of his injury and health scares, remains one of the League’s most dynamic defensemen. The 33-year-old scored 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) in 61 games. Few players rush the puck and skate the way Letang does. He’s nowhere near done. 

Last hurrah? No chance. No matter what happens this season, the Penguins will be a contender again next season because of Crosby, Malkin and Letang.

Video: ANA@PIT: Letang sets up Crosby’s power-play goal

Brock Boeser‘s name is constantly coming up in trade rumors. We’re used to this with our superstars. Is Jack Eichel for Boeser even worth debating? — @daveyboy604

It is not for multiple reasons; the most significant is the Vancouver Canucks aren’t even exploring the idea of trading Boeser, general manager Jim Benning said Monday. Benning squashed those rumors by saying, “I have no intention of trading Brock Boeser.” The 23-year-old forward said he was upset the rumors even began because he’s focused on returning to play with the Canucks and never thought about a potential trade since the NHL Trade Deadline came and went on Feb. 24.

But if Vancouver’s focus does change to exploring the market for Boeser, the impetus would likely be because of NHL salary cap constraints, and that all but eliminates the idea of a trade for Eichel, who has six years remaining on an eight-year contract that carries an annual $10 million salary cap charge. Boeser has two years left on his three-year contract that carries a $5.875 million salary cap charge. The math doesn’t add up, and the Canucks would have to throw a lot more to entice the Buffalo Sabres to trade their captain. 

The challenge for Vancouver is the salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million next season and could only grow to $82.5 million the following season, when center Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes will each need a new contract. The Canucks also want to re-sign goalie Jacob Markstrom, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season. The flat salary cap will create difficult decisions for many teams, with Vancouver likely one of them.

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