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Lightning Round: Things are looking up for the NHL

Actual hockey news edition

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Fire up the jet ski’s, boys - hockey is back! Well, not really back, but on Thursday the league announced that they are ready to move to Phase II of their return to play initiative. Starting next week teams are allowed to have small, informal workouts at their facilities.

Players aren’t required to return to their home cities to participate, heck this is technically voluntary so they’re not required to participate at all, so you might see some videos of opponents working out together in whatever city they call home to begin with, but one would assume that most of them would trickle back to their home arenas within the next few weeks, especially if they have to go through some sort of quarantine period upon their return.

One would assume that teams would want all of their players to have gone through any self-isolation periods prior to the start of Phase III - formal training camp. The Lightning should be among the teams that have a small advantage since only two of their players (Victor Hedman and Luke Schenn) are currently outside of the United States.

You may remember that two months ago the NHL released their guidelines on how organizations should operate during the Phase II stage (wait, that was early last week? Time has no meaning). Per those guidelines, players have to be tested 48 hours before returning to the facility and the league suggests testing at least twice weekly to monitor and stay ahead of any COVID-19 breakouts.

With groups of players limited to only six at a time, there probably won’t be much strategic hockey being played. It will most likely be conditioning and re-acclimating to a hockey routine. They will trade in their roller blades for ice skates and their puppies or significant others for actual work out equipment.

As has been mentioned several times over the last 3-plus months, many of these players haven’t gone this long off of skates since they were wee little ones. Shaking the rust off is going to take a little while, especially for players, like Steven Stamkos, who were dealing with an injury prior to the pause. Hopefully, they ease their way back into and keep the pulled muscles to a minimum.

It’s a positive, if not unexpected, sign that the league feels comfortable moving to the next phase. There is no current time line for this phase, other than we know it will go on for at least a month since the NHL has already let it be known that the next step won’t happen before July 10th. That should give the players enough time to hit training camps running and hopefully reduce the amount of time needed to ramp up for the return of actual games.

It’s not much, and at best all we’re going to see is grainy, cell phone video of random players skating laps, but it’s a step forward.

New and Notes:

The other big news of the day was that the league also resolved a few details about the playoffs that had been left hanging since their prior announcement. The play-in round will be a best of five series while the rest of the rounds will be best of seven. That makes things a little dicier for teams that finished just outside of the top four (looking at you Pittsburgh) and was one of the issues that led to the Lightning voting against the proposal.

The league also announced that the playoff match-ups will not be determined by a bracket, but by seeding. Following each round the highest remaining seed will face off against the lowest remaining seed, kind of like the way they used to do it. Thus, the round robin tournament for the top teams becomes a little more important. The better the Lightning do against the Bruins, Caps, and Flyers the better chance of facing a lower seed in the next round will be for them.

There is also the possibility that it could mean home ice (albeit most likely in front of no fans) later in the play-offs:

“It depends on what the world looks like,” the Commissioner [and Hall of Famer Gary Bettman] said. “If you made me guess today, I think we’ll be in one of the two hub cities or conceivably a third city. But if things change dramatically and we have the ability to go back to the home markets, (the League will). We anticipate playing this without fans, but if at some point things change, then obviously we’d reevaluate.”

A Pittsburgh Penguins player has tested positive for COVID-19. He was not identified and has “recovered and is feeling well” according to the Penguins press release. Chances are, with daily testing, this won’t be the last player to test positive moving forward and the impetus is on the league to clearly define how they’re going to handle situations such as this.

James Mirtle wrote a piece for The Athletic (subscription required) speculating that the NHL could adapt their schedule to start later in the year and August Stanley Cup matches could become a regular thing.

What’s fascinating about some of the current conversations coming out of the NHL’s return-to-play talks is not that the league would resume playing in July or August — a scenario the NHL was forced into by the unprecedented events of the pandemic — but rather that playing games deep into the summer could actually become the league’s new normal.

Fascinating indeed. Moving the start of the season away from playoff baseball and the bulk of the first half of the season away from American football would be intriguing to a sport looking for more casual viewers. There may be some initial resistance from traditional hockey markets, but if it was to happen, the adjustment period shouldn’t be too long.

Should the NHL move to a later schedule the impact on hockey in North America and around the world would be pretty interesting. Would leagues like the SHL or KHL adapt their schedules as well so that international prospects were faced with either a long layoff or a full 12-month stretch of playing? One thing that’s nice - a Stanley Cup parade in Tampa during August will be just as hot as one in June.

Willie O’Ree made his professional debut against the Montreal Canadians, but he also almost played for them as well. Eyes on the Prize has a nice look at O’Ree’s brief time with the organization.

The fact that his debut professional game was against the Montreal Canadiens, the team he idolized and grew up watching in the Maritimes, made the moment all the more special.

In his autobiography, O’Ree described what he felt on that night. “The lights were brighter, and the ice was brighter. The fans seemed more elegant and nobody called me any names.”

Finally, It’s been awhile since the “LIKE MY SPORT!” crowd has anything to get excited about so let’s all thank ESPN’s Max Kellerman for saying that no one in the United States cares about hockey:

I look forward to replaying this clip in two seasons when ESPN is one of the NHL’s TV partners and Max has to talk about how exciting it was to watch a Vancouver/Columbus game in the middle of February.