Cam Neely says playing 2020-21 NHL season would be 'difficult' without fans

Cam Neely says playing 2020-21 NHL season would be 'difficult' without fans

Bruins President Cam Neely ended a Friday morning Zoom call with reporters by saying he thinks the NHL “did a fantastic job of getting us all in the best position to play” this summer, and that’s been borne out by the way things have gone in the first few days of games inside the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

But the Hall of Fame power forward and Bruins President also admitted during the 20-minute interview that it’s difficult to see the NHL moving forward beyond the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs unless there are fans allowed back inside NHL buildings.

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The league is spending millions and millions of dollars this summer to play things out in the Hub Cities, test thousands of players and personnel on a daily basis and make certain there was a conclusion to the season that was interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak in North America.  

As the NHL is underway with exhibition games and with actual playoff games coming in the next few days, it looks like they have the safe, secure concept with the bubble setup in the Canadian cities. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a sustainable model moving forward once the NHL attempts to ramp up again for a start to the 2020-21 NHL regular season in December or January. 

The empty arenas absolutely work right now for the short term of a two-month playoff situation, but Neely isn't quite sure that's a viable solution for a league that relies somewhat heavily on ticket revenue to sustain the business. 

“It’ll be difficult to play many [NHL] games without fans from a business perspective. We’ll wait and see when we start next year. Let’s get through this season and see what happens next season,” Neely said. “I think everybody is anticipating some kind of a spike [of COVID-19] in the fall. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but I don’t know that you can play too many games without fans. Everybody [across the NHL] is building out their models without fans, 1/3 [full of] fans, 1/2 [full of] fans and full buildings, but it’s all speculation right now what we think we’re going to see at the start of next season.”

Clearly there will be plenty of moving parts to the entire operation. Will the NHL even be able to see the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs through to the end without any outbreaks or major interruptions due to testing issues? Will there be a viable vaccine for COVID-19 by the holiday season that could usher in possibilities for life to get back to some level of normalcy for everybody in the United States and Canada?

How much of a second wave will be there be in the fall for places like Boston and New York City when COVID-19 is unfortunately still spiking in many parts of the U.S., including many regions that are home to NHL clubs that aren’t likely to be able to host professional sporting events any time in the near future?

There are many, many questions right now facing the NHL when it comes to the 2020-21 season, but one of the answers appears to be that it may not be economically viable until franchises feel comfortable putting fans back in the seats.  

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy responds to Tuukka Rask's 'exhibition' remark

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy responds to Tuukka Rask's 'exhibition' remark

Tuukka Rask's comments after the Boston Bruins' Game 2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night rubbed some the wrong way, but head coach Bruce Cassidy wasn't fazed.

Rask raised eyebrows when he said, “To be honest with you, it doesn’t really feel like playoff hockey out there. There are no fans, so it’s kind of like playing an exhibition game." That isn't exactly what B's fans want to hear from their goaltender after a playoff loss, but Cassidy downplayed Rask's remarks Friday during a video conference with reporters.

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“I didn’t speak to him after his comments. Tuukka, I think the Boston media knows him well enough — he answers his questions the way he feels,” Cassidy said. “It is a unique environment, but to me, there’s playoff intensity on the ice. You’ve just gotta control what you can control when you’re a player. In my situation, as a coach, the way I look at it, at the end of the day, they’re gonna hand out the Stanley Cup this year. So we’ve gotta play our best hockey if we want to be that team.

"That was our goal at the start of the year. We didn’t anticipate it would end up in an environment like this, but here it is, right? You play the hand you’re dealt, and you prepare yourself — and in my case prepare the team — in this case, for Game 3, to play our best hockey game and that’s what my focus is on right now, plain and simple. That’s what we’re gonna do tonight and puck drop tomorrow at noon, we’re gonna put our best foot forward.”

While Rask's comments may have been off-putting, they weren't unfounded. The NHL's bubble environment is unlike anything these players have experienced before. Matching the level of playoff intensity that's in the arena when fans are in attendance is virtually impossible.

Regardless, Rask and the B's will have to be on their game if they're to regain the series lead on Saturday. Puck drop for Game 3 vs. the Hurricanes is set for 12 p.m. ET. on NBC.

Bruce Cassidy says Bruins will be making changes for Game 3; Is it Jack Studnicka time?

Bruce Cassidy says Bruins will be making changes for Game 3; Is it Jack Studnicka time?

The Bruins are expecting to make some lineup adjustments headed into Game 3 after the Hurricanes evened the series 1-1 apiece in Thursday night’s 3-2 loss in the Toronto bubble at Scotiabank Arena.

Bruce Cassidy said the B’s have some banged-up players that will also have to be factored in as well, but it sounded like he was looking to go a little smaller and faster with his group to counteract some of the speed and aggressive pressure that the Hurricanes are throwing at them.

“We’ve thought it through. There are always day-to-day bumps and bruises, but we’ll be making changes both at forward and at [defense]. Some of that is getting some energy in the lineup and changing the look of our forward group,” said Bruce Cassidy of his Game 3 lineup vs. the Hurricanes.

“Overall [Anders Bjork] did what he could with his skill set to help that line. Nobody is going to replace Pastrnak, but if guys can go in there and complement Bergeron and Marchand and help them create some offense, then they’ve done a good thing. [Bjork] may not go back there, but I don’t think that’s why we feel a goal short [in Game 2].”

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Cassidy said he “anticipates” that Rask will start Game 3 on Saturday at noontime and that David Pastrnak “could possibly play” as a game-time decision after he didn’t practice on Friday with small optional group.

Ideally, the B’s would like to have Pastrnak be able to test out the injury in practice ahead of trying to give it a go in a game, but they won’t get that chance with a noontime start on Saturday after the 24-year-old Pasta didn’t skate on Friday.

“There were some good goals and good saves, but in those one-goal games each goalie needs to make one more save along the way [if they hope to win],” said Cassidy of Rask, who has a “meh” .899 save percentage and a 3.00 goals-against average in two games vs. Carolina.

“We didn’t get it and they did, and the opposite was true the game before. I think [Rask’s] game can grow like all of our games. The goalie position is probably a tougher one to get up to speed with not a lot of room for error.

“All of the goalies coming back are all in that same position. Hopefully he’ll be better [in Game 3] and we’ll be better in front of him.”

The bet here as far as the lineup changes go? One would expect that Nick Ritchie would be coming out after he was a non-factor in Game 2 with just 10:45 of ice time, and Jeremy Lauzon as well after playing just 13:16 of ice time and taking an early undisciplined penalty chasing after Carolina players after a clean hit laid on Karson Kuhlman.

If Pastrnak can’t play Game 3 and the speedy, responsible Kuhlman stays in the lineup that could open up a chance for rookie Jack Studnicka to play right wing on either the first or third line with Anders Bjork swinging over to his natural left wing side.

Studnicka is the only player the Bruins have among their current reserves that could really make a significant offensive impact with the kind of upside where the 21-year-old could be a difference-maker in a possible one-goal game. So it would make sense that the kid gets the call if the Bruins are looking for energy and a little offense with Pastrnak’s skill set potentially missing from the Game 3 lineup. 

Studnicka played in the first game of the round robin and didn't do much beyond some nice hustle plays on the back-check, but it's pretty clear he has top-6 skill and goal-scoring abilities. 

On defense, it might be time for Cliffy Hockey and Connor Clifton after he played a gritty, agitating game in the round-robin finale against the Washington Capitals. Clifton could play a role similar to the one that Haydn Fleury has played very well for the Hurricanes as a D-man that’s been unafraid to stir things up physically against the Bruins.