January 19, 2021

Answering 5 on-ice questions about the upcoming NHL season

7 min read
There’s a stark contrast right now between the speed at which the next NHL season...

There’s a stark contrast right now between the speed at which the next NHL season is barreling down at us and the slow drip of news that continues to trickle in from around the league. That drip belies the truth of what’s soon coming, which is real hockey, so let’s turn our attention to some actual hockey questions to prepare, shall we?

How does Alex Steen’s retirement affect the St. Louis Blues?

There’s this awkward dance we’re left to do in the media when players retire due to injury with what appears to be fortuitous timing for both the player and the organization. I want to be clear that I’m speaking in generalities here, and that I’ve got the utmost respect for Alexander Steen and his wonderful career. I’m also expressing zero skepticism that his back is a mess and that it’d be much better for his long-term health to not force it through another NHL season. I’m certain it’s the right call.

I also had the utmost respect for Marian Hossa, I have the utmost respect for Johnny Boychuk, and I don’t think anyone is fabricating anything in these LTIRetired scenarios.

You can feel the “but” coming, I know.

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.

BUT we’re left to do this awkward dance even when we know the above to be true, because we also know that nearly every veteran player has nagging injuries, and every player would benefit from stopping the cycle of working to get their body in a position to play each day so they’re able to sustain further damage each night. What doctor wouldn’t verify these players would be better to stop playing? (“Doc my back hurts me every day, do you think I should keep getting in small car accidents each night or no?”) But the vast majority of them continue to do so, for a variety of reasons.

The dance is just in acknowledging that truth – that this is obviously in the player’s best interest – while not coming off like a rube that sometimes the decision to LTIRetire is the best way to not forfeit money AND help the team out in the process.

Whatever the case may be there in St. Louis, boy, is Steen’s $5.75 million cap hit coming off the books fortuitous timing (I’m sure they knew this was coming but likely would’ve preferred it be confirmed before the Pietrangelo negotiations, no?). They should have the space to pay Vince Dunn and still add some offence, whether in the form of Mike Hoffman or Mikael Granlund or Anthony Duclair or someone else they think can score them some goals in the (hopefully temporary) absence of Vladimir Tarasenko.

It’s impossible to know how this affects St. Louis off the ice, as Steen has been a smart, serious, thoughtful and respected leader there. But in viewing it from an on-ice perspective alone, this should allow the Blues to be improved in 2020-21.

How does having zero exhibition games affect your view of the NHL season?

The loss of exhibition games certainly doesn’t add anything to the credibility of the campaign, does it? There’s a real feeling-out process in the early part of the season, where teams can at least get a look at a few lines and special teams units, have a sense for how the whole thing is going to mesh together, and try to be properly prepared a few games later.

Players can be reminded of game pace and how that all feels, and there’s at least a couple games where playing competitively feels weird.

Those games will now count, which feels even weirder.

Which is fine.

At this point it is what it is and nothing is guaranteed this NHL season. Have you seen what COVID-19 is doing around North America right now? There’s the very real risk of having big swaths of games cancelled between January and April, meaning the league is going to need the biggest sample size possible on which to draw revenue and cobble together a regular season. It’s OK to admit we’re cobbling here, people.

So, in sum, having no exhibition games does hurt the legitimacy of the regular season. But right now the NHL is James Franco in 127 hours – it can sit around and hope for a magical best-case scenario to come through and die in the process, or cut off its own arm and live here. (OK that’s a bit dramatic, but at some point you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.)

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Which players have the most to prove in the upcoming season?

I enjoyed this list put together over on The Hockey News about players who have the most to prove during the upcoming season. The 10 names they came up with: Freddy Andersen, Josh Anderson, Sergei Bobrovsky, Johnny Gaudreau, Philipp Grubauer, Taylor Hall, Jack Hughes, Matt Murray, Bobby Ryan, and Jesse Puljujarvi.

My quick thoughts on a handful of those names:

Gaudreau: Great players can have one-off years that aren’t great for a variety of reasons, and the guy is 27 years old. But last season was definitely a concern, and I feel like if he has another off year the Flames will move him, so this is of utmost interest to me.

Hall: I’m not sure an NHL player has ever had a career like his and not gotten The Big Payday. He’s a first-overall draft pick who’s won a Hart Trophy and is a decade into the league but he’s yet to take home more than six million in a season. He’s gonna make eight this year, but if for whatever reason it isn’t a great year, and every team is tight in a flat-cap system, is it ever going to come for the guy?

Murray: The Sens don’t make too many big bets, and making one in the crease is the biggest bet you can make. Murray’s had some concerning numbers of late, but has proven he can be the guy in the past. Can he again?

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What are the Capitals gonna do in the crease?

Breaking just this afternoon was the news that Henrik Lundqvist won’t be suiting up for the Capitals as it was originally believed.

It’s awful news, and here’s hoping Hank will be just fine and back soon.

The plan in net for a very good Capitals team was to have a solid veteran who can handle a decent workload provide cover for their hopeful starter of the future in rookie Ilya Samsonov. Boy, the pressure just ramped up on the kid, didn’t it? There will have to be a solution here for Washington, and I’m eager to see how they pursue filling that hole.

Players are returning for NHL camps, what will those look like?

One of my takeaways from working with an NHL team was just about how little time there is to prepare for and execute all that there is to do. Now teams head toward a 10-day training camp – tops – with no exhibition games and big decisions to make. Here in Toronto, numerous roster decisions are left hanging in the balance, I’m sure in part with the plan in mind of sorting them out at camp.

So watching how teams choose to operate during these camps is going to be wildly different, I’d wager, and thus fascinating. If you need to sort out roster spots you need to play games. Will there be scrimmages? You need to get conditioning up to game speed as quickly as possible, but there won’t be time for much rest, so how hard can you go? Can you bag skate? You need to get back to battle hockey too, which plays into that. There will be systems coaching, lines to sort out, and decisions that normally take three weeks and multiple games to make will have to be made in severely compressed timelines.

One thing’s for sure: whenever hockey comes back, coaches, staff and players will be working at nearly impossible levels to be ready for puck drop, heading into one of the weirder seasons in NHL history. I, for one, am ready for it, and I’m sure they are too.

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