Hello hockey, my old friend.
Oh how I’ve missed you. Sorry we’ve grown apart these past few months, but life really does have a funny way of sneaking up on you. And, no offence, but you haven’t exactly been a priority, what with the global pandemic and all.
But that’s about to change, starting Monday as the sound of shinny silence finally disappears. Summer training camps are set to open in 24 NHL cities, including here in Winnipeg, in advance of the most unique Stanley Cup playoffs in league history, which are slated to begin Aug. 1 as a made-for-TV event without fans.
It’s going to look and feel a lot different, that’s for sure, but I’m hoping we can all find a way to make it work.
As we wait, let’s get caught up today by answering some burning questions on my mind, with a primary focus on the Winnipeg Jets:
1. Could this whole return-to-play process get grounded before it even takes flight?
While there will be some people holding their noses, expect the tentative agreement to easily get a majority of NHLPA votes and be ratified on Friday. The union is rightly selling this detailed package as the best they can do following weeks of around-the-clock negotiations, complete with a CBA extension that guarantees Olympic inclusion in 2022 and 2026 that is a real pièce de résistance for both players and fans.
Simply put, there’s too much at stake.
Sure, there’s always the possibility a COVID-19 outbreak eventually derails the best-laid plans once it gets off the ground, but the extensive safety protocols in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto are meant to mitigate that risk.
Time will tell if these so-called bubble environments are as secure as everyone believes them to be.
2. Will any players opt out?
I wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable, but don’t expect many, if any, athletes to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ like we’re currently seeing in MLB, which keeps shooting itself in the foot with bungled testing and the plan to play in virus hot spots south of the border.
No doubt some may be (quietly) grumbling at the circumstances, including being separated from family for up to two months and having their movement severely limited, but hockey players who routinely shrug off broken bones and mangled faces are unlikely to take a pass.
We’ll know soon enough, as players have until 72 hours after ratification to bail if they wish. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
3. Is Bryan Little going to be ready to play?
Mark the Jets forward as doubtful to be in the Game 1 lineup against the Calgary Flames, but I wouldn’t rule him out should the Jets go on an extended run.
Little, 32, has just seven games under his belt this season and hasn’t seen game action for more than eight months after being struck by an errant Nikolaj Ehlers slapshot that caused extensive damage to his ear and head.
Although he’s been skating and training, Little still had some tests to get through this summer.
The odds of Little ramping it back up during a two-week training camp and immediately being thrown into the fire are slim, but I have no doubt the veteran centre will do everything in his power to make a convincing argument to head coach Paul Maurice.
This is definitely one of the big storylines to watch as the local squad returns to the ice.
4. Who will be added to Winnipeg’s expanded 31-man roster?
Assuming nobody has to start on the injured list, the Jets will already have 17 forwards, 10 defencemen and two goaltenders in the fold based on their roster at the time the season paused in mid-March. That doesn’t leave much room for extra bodies.
Goaltenders Eric Comrie and Mikhail Berdin, forwards David Gustafsson, Kristian Vesalainen, C.J. Suess, Andrei Chibisov and Joona Luoto, and defencemen Nelson Nogier and Cam Schilling would all be potential options as spare parts.
Comrie is likely a lock, as the team will want a third puckstopper, but the rest is up in the air. I’d say Gustafsson and Suess have the nod over everyone else because of their versatility.
One thing is clear: Maurice is expected to have the healthiest, and deepest, roster of the season at his disposal, which should make camp ultra-competitive.
5. What will the Jets lines look like for the first playoff game?
Peering into my crystal ball, this is what I see off the hop assuming everyone but Little is deemed available. If Little defies the odds and is good to go, swap him with Shore on the fourth line to start.
Extra: Little, Letestu, Harkins, Bourque, Shaw, plus anyone added from the Manitoba Moose.
Extra: Niku, Sbisa, Dahlstrom, Bitetto, plus anyone added from the Moose.
Do you really need to ask? Speaking of which…
6. Can Connor Hellebuyck pick up where he left off?
For my money he was the best goaltender in the NHL this season, and gives the Jets a fighting chance regardless of who they play. The Vezina Trophy favourite and potential Hart Trophy candidate can steal a game, or a series, on his own, which is what the playoffs are often all about.
Any concerns about fatigue, given his heavy regular-season workload, are a thing of the past after the long layoff. A rested, focused and highly motivated Hellebuyck makes Winnipeg a dangerous team and a tough out.
Am I on the money or off the mark with regards to the above? We’re about to find out.
Regardless, it’s nice to have something fresh to talk with you about again, isn’t it?
Welcome back, hockey. Let’s make this a very safe and happy reunion.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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