Canucks still have many questions to answer as Return to Play inches ahead
Tuesday was a big day for the NHL - the first major North American professional sports league to announce a game plan to get players back into action.
Commissioner Gary Bettman made the announcement in a televised address, then followed up with a Q&A on TV before he and Bill Daly took questions from the media on a Zoom call.
In this article, I covered what we know — and what we don't — about the 24-team sort-of-playoff format and the draft lottery, as well as the health and safety measures the league plans to put into effect in order to try to make this all work.
At this point, formal plans have only been put into place for Phase 2 — the players' voluntary return to small-group practices in squads of six or fewer, which I summarized in my last blog. Lots of details still need to be worked out regarding hub cities, timing, and even the playoff format itself — best-of-five vs. best-of-seven for the first two rounds of the actual 16-team playoffs, and whether or not there will be re-seeding after the play-in round, for example.
The hope is that team facilities will start to open up next week, but Jim Benning acknowledged during his conference call with the media on Wednesday morning that the situation is complicated for Canadian clubs, where the 14-day quarantine remains in effect for all travellers arriving from another country.
Players may not be too keen to come back to Vancouver from the U.S. or Sweden, then sit in their apartments for two weeks before they're allowed to go to the rink. Andrew Copp of the Winnipeg Jets said a much in a Zoom call with the Winnipeg media on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that the quarantine rules are something that the league has been discussing with the Canadian government, but have not yet been able to resolve. He also said that if the quarantine rules remain as they are right now, that would rule out the possibility of any Canadian hub cities when game action does resume.
Benning mentioned that one way to get around that, if the rules are not relaxed, would be for the Canucks to potentially hold their informal camp and their training camp in a U.S. market, closer to where they'll eventually be playing their games. This is an idea that I heard bandied about for the Toronto Raptors, the NBA's only Canadian team, but it's the first time I've heard it come up regarding Canadian hockey teams.
I'd love to see Vancouver as a host city, but I also feel like the travellers' quarantine has been a big part of what has helped us keep Covid cases to a minimum here in Canada. I don't want to see a situation where players accidentally end up causing a spike in cases if they don't self-isolate when they return. It would be an absolute nightmare for the league if it happened on either side of the border — seems like a big hurdle to jump, which ultimately has more to do with executing this safely than it does with a government regulation.
And that's just one example of the many questions that will still need to be answered if the league can progress from these voluntary Phase 2 workouts to a formal training camp in Phase 3, and then to actual games in Phase 4.
If we get to Phase 4, we do know that the Canucks will indeed be facing the Minnesota Wild in a best-of-five play-in series. Benning said while it hasn't officially been confirmed yet, he's under the impression that they'd have to win that series in order to officially have 'made the playoffs,' in terms of what happens with the J.T. Miller first-round draft pick.
If they lose that series, then the pick will most likely bounce back to 2021. AND — the Canucks would become one of eight play-in losers who could potentially take part in a second phase of the draft lottery, possibly with a crack at a top-three pick.
The first phase will be conducted on June 26 — the original date for the first round of the draft before everything went sideways. Using normal odds, three separate draws will be conducted for the first three picks, using the now-established seven non-playoff teams and placeholders for the eight teams that will lose the play-in round when the time comes.
If those bottom seven teams win the first three picks, then we're done. But if one or more of the placeholder cards comes up, then the eight play-in losers will take part in a second lottery, with equal odds, sometime after the play-in round has concluded.
So — between now and June 26, at least, the possibility exists that the Canucks could win the Stanley Cup this year — or, could win the No. 1 draft pick. Crazy, huh?
Lots more details remain to be sorted out. Benning said at this point, the guidance that they've received is that the expanded roster could be 28 skaters and, quite possibly, an unlimited number of goaltenders. But details like that also still remain to be confirmed.
And as far as extending contracts past their June 30 expiry, specifically with respect to Judd Brackett, Benning went back to this old standby as his response. "As far as Judd's personal position, it's like the players. I don't comment on negotiations when we're signing players and I'm not going to do it with a staff member."
Benning has a meeting scheduled with his hockey operations staff at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, where he said he's hoping to start pinning down more details on how things will look as the Canucks start to move closer to getting back on the ice.
He was also vague when asked about the health of injured players Josh Leivo and Micheal Ferland.
"As we get closer to the date, we'll have to see where they're at and make that determination then if they're able to play or not. I've had positive reports, or we'll just have to see as we get closer to play."
If you're looking for hockey right now, I would enthusiastically recommend the continuation of the 1994 series between the Canucks and the Leafs, which is now shifting back to Vancouver for Game 3 on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and Game 4 on Thursday at 7 p.m., on Sportsnet.
I loved watching Game 1 on Monday night, with all the 90s nostalgia. Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman watching from the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens! All the classic hockey music — BTO, CCR, 2 Unlimited and more. A fan becoming an instant star after he passed Mike Gartner's stick back to him after it was accidentally flipped into the stands while play was going on.
The picture is better on the broadcast, trust me! I feel like that wouldn't be allowed today. The glass is probably higher now too, right?
Of course, one of the reasons I derive so much pleasure from re-watching these old games is because I was at a lot of them — and this series is no exception.
In 1994, my family's season tickets were in Row 1, on the opposite side of the Pacific Coliseum from the bank of TV cameras. I remember being told often that I was spotted in the crowd during the games in this playoff run. I'm *sort of* looking forward, with a dose of apprehension as well, to seeing if I can spot myself at these Vancouver games. I hope I wasn't wearing anything tooooooo '90s!