Give the NHL credit, they've handled the Return to Play challenge the best

Give the NHL credit, they've handled the Return to Play challenge the best

There have been plenty of times when the NHL has been the butt of the joke in the sporting world.

There are the work stoppages that included an entire lost season.

The NHL website that, until fairly recently, couldn’t even simply give you league leader statistics when you logged on.

There’s always been a nagging feeling that the NHL acted as the inferior younger brother to the NBA when it came to national interest across the United States.

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There’s the constant, repeating scene of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman getting booed in pretty much every NHL arena when he hands the Stanley Cup off to the winner, or when he announces the first round picks during NHL Draft weekend, or sometimes maladroitly navigating through all those work stoppages of the past including the lockout that wiped out half of the 2012-13 NHL season.

There have been NHL nadirs, to be sure.

But through all that stuff, it’s clear that the 27 years Bettman has put in running the NHL has also taught him all the lessons he would need for this COVID-19 outbreak. Give the NHL credit here: It has handled the COVID-19 situation better than any of the other major pro sports across North America and that has put the league in position for a successful return to play a month from now.  

The latest news is that it will be the Canadian cities of Edmonton and Toronto that will be named the NHL hub cities as the league is rightfully pulling out of the United States completely while our country grapples with an out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak. This is 100 percent the correct call and is being finalized less than two weeks away from the 24 NHL teams readying for a July 10 open to training camps across North America.

The proper, informed option for any of the pro sports leagues was to wait until the last possible moment to decide on host cities and utilize the latest COVID-19 developments and information to make the safest possible choice for everybody putting on the games.

The league was rightfully concerned by what was happening in Las Vegas where hotel workers and arena staff would not be under the same quarantine rules as players and personnel, and therefore would have been threats to infect NHL personnel and shut the entire operation down.

At the outset when the NBA chose Orlando as its hub of operations this summer, the move was widely lauded because the NBA, Disney, ESPN and ABC could effectively isolate the entire league to the Disney campus while playing the games. Hopefully it will work out that way even as COVID-19 case numbers are skyrocketing in Florida, but clearly there has been some uneasiness among NBA personnel while watching the dire situation play out in the Sunshine State.

Meanwhile the NHL appeared as if it was lagging behind and perhaps even in danger of not returning because it was holding off on announcing locations. The league still hasn’t even zeroed in on an official start date that’s reportedly going to be at the end of July for the qualifying round games.

Instead, the NHL slow-played the process while working hand-in-hand with NHLPA head Don Fehr and a Return to Play committee with a number of influential NHL players. The league made certain to choose the safest options in Edmonton and Toronto that could maximize security, health, integrity of the game and still provide adequate facilities for players who will effectively be marooned there for a few weeks to a few months.

"We will create an environment that will be exciting, will be entertaining, will be consistent with a competition that has integrity. Everybody we’ve been doing has been a joint effort [with the players] working together to make sure we’re adhering to the protocols, which will be very strict," said Bettman, during a June program on ESPN that hosted all the commissioners talking about a return to play. “I think everybody can feel good, based on the combination of the play-in round and the way we're going to run the playoffs, that this will be a full competition which will bring out the best in our teams and our players. The Stanley Cup champion will be deserving of that crown and the most storied trophy in all of sports."

Now the NHL and the NHL players are on the verge of approving an entire return to play document, site locations, start dates and it sounds like they will even tack on a couple of years to a CBA that was expiring soon, with an eye toward steadying the ship through unprecedentedly difficult financial years expected in the near future.

The NHL has done it without embarrassing themselves like Major League Baseball did by squabbling over money, and without having any players like Tom Brady decide to go rogue on the NFL while showing that marketing themselves was more important than embracing and adhering to the safety protocols.

Instead the NHL quietly, sagaciously and efficiently navigated through a volatile COVID-19 epidemic and all the while has kept the players to under 5 percent positive COVID-19 test results with no isolation rules currently in place.

Clearly the real challenge will come when training camps open and games get played in the hub cities, and the league will be challenged to contain positive tests and avoid outbreaks while getting through a few months of playoff hockey. But it appears as if the NHL is at least going to get there to give it a try with very little complications to this point.

The sometimes-maligned NHL is on the verge of a return with zero fuss, and as much care and forethought as possible while heading into an admittedly scary unknown of playing through a global pandemic.

That is the best that can be done under the trying circumstances right now. The NHL has handled these trying times in way that’s looking like the gold standard for the rest of pro sports across North America, so those other leagues would do well to take notes and pay attention while everybody remains hopeful that circumstances will allow for the return of hockey a month from now.

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.