The Boston Bruins do not have to play their way into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, if they happen, because the team’s regular season record left it atop the National Hockey League’s standings. However, the round-robin tournament that would decide the top four seeds in each conference could cost Boston that position.
The question is, exactly how much does seeding matter, especially with the fact that home-ice advantage will not be much of a factor with games being played in empty arenas in two hub cities? Based on recent comments from Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, the team may be planning to take a cautious approach in the four-team tournament.
Risk vs. Reward
The Bruins have a decent mix of veterans and young players. It makes sense that Cassidy and the Boston brass would want to go that extra mile to protect the health and safety of aging stars like 43-year-old captain Zdeno Chara, as well as Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Keeping those guys fresh for games that really count toward the quest for the Stanley Cup could be huge.
However, the coaching and training staff will have to balance the need to rest the team’s core players against the fact that in-game experience will benefit all players after three or four months of down time. Perhaps the thinking is that the abbreviated training camp-style period leading up to any meaningful games will be enough to help everyone knock off the rust. However, if Cassidy is leaning toward resting guys during the tournament, he probably also doesn’t want to risk inserting them into exhibition games.
On the flipside, the round-robin games could be used as an excellent opportunity to decide just who should suit up in the playoff series to follow. As abruptly as the 2019-20 regular season ended, there is really no way for the coaches to know how anyone will respond to the extended downtime. In addition, they will have to take into account the fact that the players will not have had access to the gym or much of an opportunity to hit the ice.
With the entire active roster expected to arrive at camp healthy and ready to go, there will be personnel decisions to be made. For example, usual fourth-line center Sean Kuraly was really starting to find his game near what turned out to be the end of the season. As a result, he was being used at both center and left wing, and moved up and down between the third and fourth lines. That momentum could continue or the time off could have hurt it.
In contrast, forward Anders Bjork, who had been moved up to second-line right wing in January, saw his performance decline later in the season. By March, when he was able to crack the lineup, he was still getting very little time on ice. Now, he has had a few months to work out the kinks and may be ready to reclaim a regular spot.
On the Bubble
Another conundrum facing Cassidy and Sweeney is what to do with a few players who were called up in the first few months of 2020 because of injuries. Players like Jeremy Lauzon and Karson Kuhlman were playing well enough to earn roster spots, and Zach Senyshyn was also showing promise.
However, the mainstay players those guys were filling in for are expected to be healthy now. As a result, the round-robin games could be used to determine if Lauzon, John Moore or Connor Clifton should slot in alongside Matt Grzelcyk on defense, for example. If the bench boss still doesn’t love what he is seeing from Bjork, Senyshyn would almost certainly get a look as a possible sub.
The Great Unknown
It’s fair to say that no one in the league, from officials to coaches to players, knows what to expect if training camp does begin as scheduled on July 10. Much like every other aspect of pandemic life, we’re all learning as we go along.
That uncertainty brings up a few non-hockey issues that could play a factor in deciding who plays in the play-in round. Some players, such as Krejci, have already expressed concerns over possibly being held in isolation for two or three months while the playoffs take place. He surely isn’t the only player with a family who does not want to be separated for that length of time.
Another question that has been raised by some players around the league is what happens if someone on the team gets coronavirus when play resumes? Boston already reportedly has one player who tested positive, so this could be a real concern.
In addition, the Tampa Bay Lightning had to close their practice facility because of five positive tests, and Toronto Maple Leafs star forward Auston Matthews also tested positive. That means the virus will have already been present in one form or another on at least three of the four round-robin teams in the Eastern Conference.
If players with families refuse to be kept in strict isolation or if others are not comfortable assuming the health risk, that could mix up the rosters. However, it stands to reason that the NHL will have to address those concerns before the players actually agree to come to camp.
No Right Answer
These decisions are going to be difficult for everyone involved. The players, coaches and fans all want hockey to return, without a doubt. But the overriding need is to keep everyone safe and healthy in the process. If it happens, no aspect of a return to play is going to be easy.