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The 6 biggest takeaways from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's season update

The 6 biggest takeaways from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's season update

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took part in a digital keynote interview with Leaders Week on Monday and provided several important updates for where the NHL stands in terms of a return to play. The media was not privy to the interview, but NHL.com columnist Nick Cotsonika was allowed to listen. He joined Rob Carlin for a special episode of the Capitals Talk Podcast to provide the latest on the league's efforts to resume the 2019-20 season.

Be sure to listen to the podcast here, but here are some of the key takeaways.

Resuming the season isn't about making money, it's about trying to lose less

With every passing day it becomes fairer to wonder if the 2019-20 season is going to be finished at all. The season pause has now stretched to over two months and the league has not even progressed to the second phase yet which would see players returning to their respective cities. If and when the league does return to play, it still remains several weeks away at the very least.

But if you are among those questioning what's the point? Cotsonika says it is about losing as little money as possible.

It is easy to take a cynical view in this situation and believe the league is pushing for a return to play to try to cash-in on everyone's desire to see live sports again, but Cotsonika says that is just not the case.

"To think they’re going to come back to some windfall in the short term is not reality," Cotsonikia said. "They’re coming back for the integrity of the game, believe it or not. Believe it or not there is a genuine integrity of the game here. They want to play this season, they want to award the Cup in a way that has integrity. It’s history, it’s important, it’s what we all play for, it’s why we’re all in what we do. From a business standpoint, it’s to lose less money. They’re going to lose money. They’re not going to make a killing coming back."

For a league like the AHL, it does not make financial sense to try to come back without fans because their profits are so heavily dependent on the gate (ticket sales and concessions). The NHL is also a gate-driven league, but not to the same degree. Given the league's media and television partnerships, the league actually stands to lose more money by foregoing the rest of the season than it would if it is able to hold a postseason even without the fans. That's why the NHL is not going to cancel the season unless it absolutely has to.

The league still believes it can finish the 2019-20 season and keep an 82-game season for 2020-21

Regardless of how much the league may want to finish the 2019-20 season, there will come a time when it no longer makes sense to do so. The NHL has not reached that point.

"I think everybody’s aware that there will come a time if you get too late in the summer that you might have to [cancel the remainder of the season], but it’s still May," Cotsonika said. "The commissioner made it very clear that they want to play, they want to find a way to finish the season. He believes the fans want that, the players want that and they have flexibility in terms of the schedule. They can play in the summer, they can delay the start of next season while still planning on an 82-game season."

There is virtually no way at this point the NHL could resume the current season and begin the 2020-21 season on time, but that does not mean it has to scrap an 82-game season. There are ways the league can manipulate next season in order to still get 82 games.

"You compress the schedule, you take out the five-day mandatory break, you take out the all-star game and you play an 82-game season and you finish later next year than you want to, but at least you get in a full season if all goes well," Cotsonika said.

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The league's plans to resume the season is not causing the same kind of labor tension as in the MLB

The fact that the league wants to both finish this season and hold an 82-game season in 2020-21 with none of the negotiated breaks could potentially be a source of tension between the NHL and NHLPA. We have seen that kind of tension crop up in the MLB where the players are pushing back on aspects of the league's proposal to start the season. In the NHL's case, however, there seems to be no such labor issue.

"The commissioner did talk about that it’s been a very collaborative process," Cotsonika said. "The NHL’s an interesting situation because the CBA, they split revenues 50-50 so they’re in this together. They have aligned goals here as a league and as a union. That’s why they have the return to play committee as well that work hand in hand. Anything the NHL does, they’re consulting with the NHLPA and they’re going back and forth. Now, that doesn’t mean that every single player feels the same way or every single team feels the same way, there’s lots of difference of opinion within those two organizations, but I think at the end of the day they both want to play.

"Everybody here is losing money. Even as the NHL comes back to play without fans, the NHL’s going to lose money, the players are going to lose money. It’s a matter of how much."

Just getting the players back to the United States and Canada remains a major hurdle

Great, so the league wants to resume the season and most of the players seem to want to play so what are the actual hurdles to returning? The first and most obvious, besides the virus itself, is just getting the players back to their respective cities.

"There was an interesting number that Bettman used and he said 17-percent of players are outside of North America right now," Cotsonika said. "So that’s 17-percent of your workforce, your players who would have to come back either to the United States or Canada. There are border issues, there are quarantine issues. And then you have the rest of your players are spread out around North America so if you have players in the States who have to go to Canada and vice-versa you have the same issue. So that’s another issue that they have to work out. You’ve got to bring them over here, they have to quarantine for x-period, you have to get them through the border."

Testing will be one of the major aspects of the NHL's return

The NHL and NBA have been almost in lockstep in their responses to the coronavirus, but one aspect in which the NHL has differed significantly is its stance on testing. When the coronavirus first caused both leagues to halt play, the NBA faced criticism when several teams were able to get tested for the virus despite there being a shortage of tests for ill patients. While NBA teams wanted to be proactive in finding out who had the virus, the NHL instead did not want to be perceived as getting preferential treatment by being tested over those who needed it and elected not to seek tests for any asymptomatic players or personnel.

According to Cotsonika, testing will be vital to the NHL's return to play, but the league still remains very concerned about perception.

"One thing that the commissioner and the deputy commissioner have been very clear on is they’re going to need frequent testing and they cannot do that at the expense of the medical community," Cotsonika said. "They don’t want pro athletes taking tests from people who need them."

The only way to keep the players safe if the season returns is to constantly test, but if there are not enough tests to go around, the NHL understands that this could mean delaying the season even further.

"If they cannot test the people they need to test, they can’t play," Cotsonika said.

The NHL has narrowed down its search of centralized locations and is focusing on NHL cities

The NHL is down to eight or nine possible sites to use as centralized locations for the return of the season. The league is looking at cities that could accommodate 12 teams which, if the NHL goes with a 24-team playoff, would mean only two possible cities are needed. As the NHL continues to narrow its search, however, do not be surprised if the league uses multiple cities as a contingency plan.

"What they’re looking at here is they’re down to eight or nine places where they feel they could have as many as a dozen teams if that makes sense," Cotsonika said. "So if you went with two centralized locations that could have a dozen teams, well then you could have three or four or whatever you decide to have. I think you need some flexibility there because this is a moving target, right? So the coronavirus has been different in different places -- the level of infection, the testing capabilities -- so you have to have some flexibility. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, say city X, it becomes a hotspot and then you’re in trouble. You have to have lots of different contingencies."

So what are the criteria the league is looking for out of a central site?

"I think what you’re looking for is an NHL city that has an NHL arena, not for the seats but for the back of house types of things like the medical facilities, the training facilities, multiple locker rooms because if you’re going to have multiple games a day, you’re going to need to sanitize the dressing room in between," Cotsonika said. "And then you’re going to need a community that has a low rate of infection and has plenty of testing capability."

Earlier in the pause, it was reported that other areas besides NHL cities were being considered such as Connecticut and North Dakota. But, according to Cotsonika, the NHL determined these locations were not logistically realistic.

"It’s amazing what it takes to put on an NHL game," Cotsonika said. "People have no idea behind the scenes all the little things you need. You can’t just have an ice rink, like a sheet of ice and some boards and glass and play. All the little things for instant replay, for medical, it goes on and on, media facilities. ... They looked into it. They did. They crunched the numbers. It didn’t make sense."

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7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

Hockey is back! Or at least we have a date for when hockey will be back. After pausing the season on March 12 due to the coronavirus, the NHL will return to action on Aug. 1 when the qualification and round-robin rounds begin. As one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, Washington will play three round-robin games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. You can view the schedule and a list of important dates here.

By the time the Caps return to the ice for their first game, nearly five months will have passed since the last time they played so the 2020 postseason will essentially be a clean slate. When trying to size up the team's chances at a Cup run, the round-robin will give us our first glimpse of what we can expect from them. Here are the specific areas to keep an eye on.

Braden Holtby

Todd Reirden has already declared that the starting goalie job is "Holtby's job to lose." Holtby had a rough regular season (.897 save percentage, 3.11 GAA), but he has a Stanley Cup to his name and the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time. While it makes sense to start Holtby going into the playoffs, you can bet he will be on a tight leash. The fact is that his numbers have been in steep decline the last three years. A lengthy pause could prove beneficial for the 30-year-old netminder who will turn 31 in September, but considering he wasn't even able to get on the ice until the team moved into Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan on June 11, just how well he will play after so much time off is a complete unknown.  

You also have to consider the fact that Ilya Samsonov will be the team's backup and played well for the majority of the season. While I believe Holtby would have to completely fall apart in the round-robin for Samsonov to start in the first round, I do think that Holtby's performance will dictate just how long the leash is once the playoffs start in earnest.

RELATED: CAPS SET TO RETURN AUG. 3 VS. LIGHTNING

The new players

The Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline. At the pause, Dillon has played in only 10 games for Washington while Kovalchuk played in seven.

The transition to a new team during the season can be a tough one for players, but they have certainly had a significant amount of time to study up on their new team's system. They also will get a brief training camp before heading to Toronto that will give them more practice time to adjust. That could be a huge boost for Washington when looking at Dillon in particular. Defense is the major weakness of the team and Dillon has taken on a top-pair role with John Carlson.

On the other hand, while the number of games Dillon and Kovalchuk would have gotten before the playoffs would be limited, its more than they are getting now. Ultimately you're not going to be able to adjust to a new system without playing in it. Instead of a few regular-season games to adjust, Dillon and Kovalchuk's next game will be in the round-robin when the games count again.

General manager Brian MacLellan acquired both players with roles in mind for a Cup run. Both players now have to learn on the job and get up to speed quickly in order to live up to the roles MacLellan acquired them for.

The veteran players

The Caps are a veteran-heavy team. Nicklas Backstrom is 32, John Carlson is 30, Lars Eller is 30, Carl Hagelin is 31, Braden Holtby is 30, Ilya Kovalchuk is 36, T.J. Oshie is 33 and Alex Ovechkin is 34. After such a long pause, the veteran players will come into camp well-rested, but also a few months older.

After nearly five-months in between games, this has essentially been a full offseason for the league and a player's performance varies from season to season. Five months is not an insignificant amount of time and age may catch up to a handful of players at some point during the postseason even after having so much time to recuperate. These three games will give us a look at whether players like Ovechkin and Backstrom will still be able to perform at an elite level for another postseason run.

Michal Kempny

Kempny may have saved the team in 2018, but in the 2019-20 season, he was really struggling. A torn hamstring affected his preparation in the offseason and even after he returned he did not look like he was quite right. It's unclear if that had to do with any lingering physical issues or if it was purely mental. Regardless, he has had plenty of time to either heal further or regain his confidence which should mean improved play.

if the Caps suddenly got back 2018, first-pair Kempny, that would be a huge boon for the blue line.

Lineup decisions

Offensively, you can pretty much pencil in these lines:

Ales Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

If those lines change going in, that's significant and bears watching. If they change over the course of the three round-robin games, that is something to keep an eye on to see if there is something Reirden does not like or wants to switch up.

Defensively, there are more question marks.

Can Kempny regain a top-pair role? Where does Dillon ultimately fit? Who plays on the right side of the second pair? Does the team dress three lefties and three righties or does Reirden go with four lefties?

Granted, all of these decisions have to be taken in context. Whether Reirden is reacting to someone's play or to the standings of the round-robin is important to keep in mind. Still, there is not much time to really experiment with and I would expect Reirden to give his projected lineup for the playoffs as much time as possible to prepare for the playoffs.

The power play

The power play has been terrible this season and ranked 24th in the NHL since Dec. 23.  Many have argued it has become too predictable, but really, everyone knew what they were trying to do for years and still couldn't stop it. Zone entries and puck movement have been the two biggest issues with the power play unit this season. The quick puck movement that makes a power play so hard to cover just has not been there and the players appear to be slower and more methodical with their puck movements, to their detriment. Even if the power play can improve to just average for the payoffs, that will be a major boost.

Defense

The biggest weakness of all for the team this season, the defense has been just flat out bad. The team has struggled to find a partner for Carlson, the team has only one top-four right defenseman and the efforts to shuffle players in and out of the top four have led to some dreadful third-pair combinations. Carlson has to be the team's best blueliner every night, someone has to lay claim to the top-pair role and Nick Jensen or Radko Gudas need to show they can handle a second-pair role.

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NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

In one fell swoop, the NHL and its players union voted Friday to approve a package deal that included both the NHL’s return-to-play plan and a new Collective Bargaining agreement. The tentative agreement reached upon Tuesday became official when it was approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors and received a simple majority in the player vote.

The 24 teams that qualified for the expanded Stanley Cup playoffs will begin formal training camps Monday in preparation for an Aug. 1 start to the postseason. The Capitals have already guaranteed themselves one of the top four spots in the East and will play in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding before the first round.

RELATED: NHL, PLAYERS UNION AGREE ON SEASON RESTART PLAN IN NEW CBA

Here’s what Washington’s postseason schedule will look like in the seeding round and when they would be on the ice if they make it all the way:

Aug. 3 – Capitals vs. Lightning (seeding game)

Aug. 6 – Capitals vs. Flyers (seeding game)

Aug. 8 – Bruins vs. Capitals (seeding game)

Aug. 11 – First round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Aug. 25* – Second round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Sept. 8* – Conference finals begin

Sept. 22* – Stanley Cup Finals begin

Oct. 4* – Last possible day of Stanley Cup Finals

*Date still tentative

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