With the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the Return to Play (RTP) negotiations being agreed upon by the league and the Player’s Association, hockey is another step closer to coming back! The NHL’s Phase 3 begun last Monday (July 13th) so let’s take a look at what has transpired in the last week, first starting in Montreal then looking across the league.
With Phase 3 officially underway, teams can now hold full team practices without a limit to the number of players or team staff on the ice (except for the Maple Leafs’ refs). That is not to say that there are not certain protocols all players and staff must pass prior to joining, at this point any player returning must quarantine for seven days minimum and provided four consecutive negative tests or else they must sit out 14 days. After this, everyone will still be required to take tests every other day to monitor their health and teams must follow local health guidelines.
At the start of Habs training camp this season, Claude Julien’s Day 1 lines were more or less the roster that the Habs went with for the season. For that reason here are the line combinations and pairings from the first day back of RTP.
Max Domi (F), Brett Kulak (D), Xavier Ouellet (D), Josh Brook (D), Alexander Romanov (D)
Karl Alzner is the only player on the Habs roster to opt out of the Return to Play Phase 3 & 4. The Canadiens released a statement saying that Alzner will not participate in the RTP, no reason was given but we will touch on a few more player that opted out later.
The most notable missing name is Max Domi, he and the team decided it was best to wait an additional 7-10 days before joining the team because he is a Type 1 diabetic. Today marks seven days and it is finally official, Domi has rejoined the team! It will be interesting to see where he slots in on this roster, many speculated early that he would push KK off the depth chart and into the press box but I am not so sure. Domi’s contract expires at the end of this season and the issue of center vs wing for Domi could cause long term problems with Suzuki and KK emerging to be the Habs centers of the future along with Danault. I think this would be the perfect opportunity to put Domi on the wing with Drouin and Suzuki and see how he can fit into this roster as a winger before committing to a long term contract. Drouin is a luxury sports car that needs premium fuel, Domi and Suzuki are easily two of the most skilled and offensively gifted players on this roster, let’s make it happen.
Recently signed Alexander Romanov has made his way to Montreal but he must go through a mandatory quarantine before he can join his new teammates. Romanov will not be allowed to participate in the play-in series but the NHL has allowed teams to sign players like Romanov immediately and burn a year of their Entry Level Contract (ELC). This may seem like a counter intuitive move for his progression because he will not be able to play until the start of the 2020-21 season (currently set for December). The problem is that the KHL season starts in September and it is unlikely that teams would be eager to sign a player like Romanov only to lose him in a couple months when the NHL starts their new season. The Habs had to bite the bullet here, but there are rumours of teams holding a rookie tournament prior to next season so that their prospects can get back on the ice. Regardless, bienvenue à Montréal Alex!
The lines for the most part have remained the same with a few plug ins here and there. The only real juggling that has been done is at the second Left Defenseman spot. Julien seems to be trying out a few guys next to Petry as Mete has been part of a small group of five players that have been practicing by themselves. Starting back on Friday, Danault, Poehling, Mete, Fleury and Primeau have been training together ahead of the Habs main practice with Laval Rockets Head Coach Joel Bouchard.
The team’s scrimmage saw the Tem Red, the 1st & 4th line (Weal subbing for Danault) along with the 1st & 2nd D pairings (Olofsson subbing in for Mete) and Carey go up against Team White, the 2nd & 3rd lines with Juulsen, Folin, Brook and Lindgren/McNiven in nets. Team Red took home the 2-0 victory with Chiarot leading the way with a goal and assist and Carey getting the shut out, ça sent la coupe!
A couple of positive notes regarding this scrimmage and the first week of camp as a whole, Suzuki looks real good and will be asked to go up against Sid and the Pens top line. Kotkaniemi looks much stronger, he has clearly put on a little bit of weight and he even trained a bit with renowned skating specialists Janne Hänninen and Raimo Summanen. Most importantly he seems to have matured a lot, coming in with a whole new demeanor and outlook on the season and his role on the team. Noah Juulsen has been turning heads in camp, finally fully healthy and ready to go, the 2015 first round pick appeared very calm and confident on the ice, having the best scrimmage of the three defenseman on Team White, who are all likely competing for the final spot on the roster. Finally, Jake Evans, the former Notre Dame captain is impressing a lot of people, including Julien, with the way he has accepted his role, playing a lot of shut down, grind it out hockey while being the offensive catalyst that pushes the needle on that line.
Most importantly, the Habs have a new look first power play unit (PP1)! Habs fans often and loudly voiced their displeasure with guys like Weal and Cousins being on the PP1, I get it, but they were also only out there to stand in front of Weber bombs. The problem was that the PP1 was built for Weber and PP2 was built with skilled puck moving players but PP2 was never seeing the ice. Kirk Muller finally decided to combine the two units because the Habs will need their power play to be much better than the 17.7% mark it finished with this season, ranked 22nd in the league. I personally would prefer not to have Gally in front of the net risking injury but he is far and away our best net front presence and loves to mix it up in the corners. The Canadiens are a strong team at five on five, finishing just outside the top 10 in even strength goals (146 – 13th) so if they can get their PP1 going, they give themselves a chance at the upset.
Today at training camp the Habs tested out a second unit that included Kotkaniemi in front with Weal and Domi on the half boards, Armia in the slot and Petry up top at the point. An alternative version, that I much prefer, saw Lehkonen in front with KK and Domi on the half boards and Armia and Petry assuming the same roles.
AROUND THE NHL
The NHL has announced the final part of the schedule for RTP with each team taking part in an exhibition game prior to the start of the qualifying round. The exhibition games kick off on July 28th with the Pens taking on the Flyers, while the Habs will also play their game on the 28th against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Going coast to coast here in Canada, the battle of Alberta may not have the exact same intensity but the Flames and Oilers will face off in their exhibition game. To round out the all Canadian content here, the Canucks will take on the Jets.
Coming back to Pittsburgh, the Habs opponent in the qualifying round, the Pens voluntarily sidelined nine players from their training camp after learning of a potential secondary exposure to COVID-19. All nine players were back on the ice for the Pens today as the begun their team scrimmages. A second, and much larger development for the Pens is Sidney Crosby left practice early on Saturday and missed Sunday’s practice then Monday’s scrimmages (Pens held two). In classic NHL fashion, the team is not allowed to comment on the situation, simply stating that Crosby is ‘unfit to play’
Without going into updates for every team, the NHL’s deadline for all players to opt out of Phase 3 and 4 was last Monday at 5 p.m. ET. The first player to announce he would be opting out was Travis Hamonic (D Calgary Flames). In a statement released by his agency, Hamonic outlined a health scare with his daughter and now with a second child (a baby boy), he and his wife decided there is too much risk for both him and specifically his family. Hamonic has been a family first man his entire life which was evident when he requested a trade from the Islanders to be closer to his mom after his father passed away. I respected him then and I respect his decision now.
To round out the list of opt outs, Mike Green (D Edmonton Oilers) cited deeply personal family health reasons. This is a unique case because Green was acquired by the Oilers at the trade deadline that came with a conditional pick which was predicated on his and the team’s playoff success. Sven Baertschi (F Canucks) and Steven Kampfer (F Boston Bruins) both similarly cited family and health concerns and Roman Polak (D Dallas Stars) elected to remain home as he is set to play in the Czech Republic next season anyways. The final player to opt out was former Hab Andrew Shaw (F Chicago Blackhawks) who is recovering from a concussion and has decided that an extra five months recovery would be best for his health.
In an attempt to wrap this up on a bit more of an optimistic tone, the NHL released the names of the finalists for a couple of awards this week. We won’t get into the details of each award or finalist just yet but check back in with us this week!
One final piece of news, here is the playoff schedule for the RTP (provided no set backs). Let’s (hopefully) get ready for some hockey!