The NHL has a formal plan for its return to play, with the top 12 teams in each conference resuming in two hub cities, starting with best-of-five qualifying rounds among the bottom eight teams in each group, with the Canes set to face the New York Rangers.
While this plan wouldn’t go into action until into July at the earliest, the Hurricanes are already planning and preparing. General manager Don Waddell and captain Jordan Staal spoke with the media via Zoom call Wednesday to address the return to play and offer some updates on the state of the team.
A unique challenge
Obviously, playing under this new format in the two hub cities will be unlike anything the league’s coaches, management and players have faced before.
Still, they understand that, in order to still play the games amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some changes and sacrifices have to be made. First and foremost for the players is the possibility of being away from their families.
“It’s definitely going to be an unfortunate challenge being away from the families and all the other stuff that’s going to come along with it,” Staal said. “Obviously it’s a different time, and if we want to play this game, we’re going to have to do it in that regard. Guys are going to have some make some sacrifices, but they’re willing to do it. We’re ready to play, and we’ll have to do it that way.”
Another big challenge for the players, and the teams’ training staffs, will be the league’s plans to test players daily for COVID-19.
“That’s another interesting one,” Staal said. “I fortunately haven’t had to do it or anything like that. I think it’s going to have a lot of extra work for our trainers, and the day-to-day stuff for them. It’ll be some extra work for them, which is going to be difficult. Just staying on top of everyone is going to be a good challenge for our training staff and place onus on the players to make sure everyone’s safe. It’s going to be different; it’s going to be some interesting hurdles. But if we get back on the ice, I’m sure the guys will find a way to jump through them.”
The format for returning to play is not one the Canes favored, with the team being one of two votes against it for the NHLPA. The team hoped to get in some regular season games before a 16-team playoff.
Still, the Canes understand getting back to play was going to require something unconventional, and they’re willing to do what it takes to make that happen.
“We also understand that the National Hockey League is always trying to do what’s best for the 31 member teams,” Waddell said. “Knowing it now, we’re good with it and we move forward. I do anticipate us having the opportunity to play a few exhibition games. It won’t be in your home market, it’ll probably be in the hub cities once all the teams come together, but I fully expect that we’ll be able to play a couple [exhibition] games.”
Obviously, playing a best of five in the qualifying round (and potentially in the first and second rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs) will be unique to players used to playing best of sevens, but Waddell is confident in the Canes abilities with a strong team and a coach that he knows will do everything in his power to prepare.
“The good thing is it’s the same for both teams,” Waddell said. “As Jordan said, we have a coach that there won’t be any stone that’s unturned. He’ll be prepared. The day they walk into training camp, he’s going to be prepared for playing the Rangers. We know how [Rod Brind’Amour] thinks of things and how he does things. He does them the right way. He’s already working on it; we had a conversation earlier this morning about it.”
With the long layoff, a trio of injured players that may have already been good to go for the normally-timed Stanley Cup Playoffs will definitely be back in the lineup: Dougie Hamilton, James Reimer and Sami Vatanen, who was injured with the New Jersey Devils before the Canes acquired him at this year’s trade deadline.
Waddell said all three players should be 100 percent, and that Hamilton has been skating, which is allowed by the league since he’s a rehabbing player.
In addition, the team could potentially see another big return. When Brett Pesce underwent shoulder surgery in early March, not long before the NHL put its season on pause, it was thought he was done for the year. With everything pushed so far back, that may not be the case, according to Waddell. Depending on when play resumes, and how far the Canes advance, the defensive stalwart could make his return.
“My update today on Brett Pesce was he’s going to see a surgeon in 10 days,” Waddell said. “He had the surgery on March 5, and they said it was five-six months, so if you take the calendar, it’ll probably be sometime in the middle of August. So I’m not sure he’s going to be ready when the season begins or not, depending on the timing of when the season begins, but he’ll be really close.”
The team will be excited to get Hamilton, in particular, back in the lineup. Before suffering a fractured fibula in his left leg that required surgery in mid-January, the Canes’ defensive leader was playing some of the best hockey in his career, with 14 goals, 40 points and a +30 rating placing him firmly in the Norris Trophy conversation.
The second-year Hurricane’s teammates know they’ll be getting a massive addition with Hamilton’s return.
“Dougie was a big hole,” Staal said. “I think our D corps did an unbelievable job when he was out. A lot of guys stepped up and played some different roles and some key roles and played really well. ... I’s going to be a big, towering defenseman that knows how to score goals and run the power play. I just had him over the other night, he’s excited to get going and be part of the group again.”
The long layoff will also provide extra time for the team’s three big-ticket, trade-deadline acquisitions, Vatanen, Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck, to get further acclimated with the team and Brind’Amour’s system.
“They’re going to have a little extra advantage, obviously with the injuries that we get back and those guys will get a few extra practices as a group,” Staal said. “I’m feeling really confident about our team, what we can do and it’s going to be an interesting start to this. Hopefully we get off to a great start, which you’ll have to. But you guys know better than anyone, Roddy’s going to do a great job of preparing for it and making sure everyone’s ready. We’ve got a pretty solid group, and we’ll hopefully make a good push.”
Doing what they can, staying in shape
Staal said players have been doing what’s needed to stay in shape without being able to be on the ice. He’s been using an exercise bike, dumbbells and doing body weight exercises.
The players have stayed in touch via group chats, and have had some calls from Brind’Amour to make sure they’re staying in shape, taking care of their families and taking care of each other. The Hurricanes have also received some directions from strength coach Bill Burniston for their workouts, and done some group workouts via Zoom.
“He’s been great,” Staal said. “He’s helped us out a lot. Each person, individually as well, because everyone’s obviously got a different scenario and different situation. Those have helped out, especially myself, in the best way to go about our business right now and I think the guys are doing a great job.”
A tough opponent, and brother vs. brother
There’s no secret the Rangers have historically been a problem for the Hurricanes, especially this year. In the regular season, the team went 0-4 against its Metropolitan Division foe, with the Rangers out-scoring the Hurricanes 17-9.
“It’s interesting for our teams. They’re excited about being part of the playoffs. They’re a team that we’ve struggled with, so it’s a great challenge for us, I think jumping right into it. Hopefully we can do our best to find a way to win that and we’ll be feeling good. It’ll be fun.”
The best-of-five will also pit Jordan against one of his two NHL-playing brothers, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal in the “playoffs” for the first time since squaring off with Eric and the Hurricanes as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.
“We’ve texted a few times here and there,” Staal said. “... I haven’t played against a brother in the playoffs in awhile. I know my parents hate it, but, I think we’re going to enjoy it and have some fun with it.”
Some extra bodies
With the remainder of the AHL season cancelled, the 24 NHL teams returning to play will, as Ellliott Friedman first reported Tuesday night, be allowed to carry up to 28 skates and as many goalies as they want.
Waddell said the Canes will take advantage of this in some form, and it could offer valuable development opportunities for prospects such as Jake Bean and Joey Keane. The team won’t, however, use every available spot just for development’s sake, as Brind’Amour doesn’t want to have too many players on the ice for practices.
“It will be a benefit for them to be around here and we will bring in some of those guys, for sure,” Waddell said. “It’s probably more important to work off-ice too at that point with Bill Burniston and really start to prepare for the start of next season and be ready in case we need some players this season. We will use it a little bit as development, but if guys don’t have any chance of playing this year, it probably doesn’t make sense to bring them in for either side.”
AHL affiliate resolution coming
Throughout the past few months, rumors have swirled that the Hurricanes would end their affiliation agreement with the Charlotte Checkers, switching to the Chicago Wolves, with a report last month saying such a move was close.
Waddell said the team is still in negotiations, that he had in fact just gotten off a conference call on the subject a half hour prior to the media zoom call. He said the issue of the team’s top affiliate is “front and center”, and expects a final resolution to come next week.
Outdoor game plans proceeding
Amid the pandemic, there are serious questions about the immediate future of sporting events, particularly ones with massive numbers of spectators. Few events draw more than the NHL’s outdoor games, and the Hurricanes are scheduled to host a Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 21, 2021.
Waddell, however, said the team is proceeding with its plans to hold the game as scheduled until it hears otherwise. He said the Hurricanes had three calls last week on the game, one on jerseys, one on tickets and one on sponsors, and typically have three calls a week on the subject.
“We’re moving forward right now that it’s going to happen as we selected the date last year,” Waddell said. “Until somebody tells us differently, we’re going to work to make sure we put this thing together to showcase Raleigh and the Triangle area as best we can.”
Waddell said the team has brought back several furloughed employees in the last few weeks, particularly those needed for finishing the new practice facility in Morrisville.
He said the number of employees furloughed changes weekly based on needs and demand for work.
Tomorrow, NHL Network’s Series in a Day program will feature the 2002 Eastern Conference Final between the Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs, starting at 8 a.m.
Hurricanes’ “Series in a Day” on NHL Network Tomorrow, May 28:
• 8:00 a.m. – Toronto Maple Leafs at Carolina Hurricanes, 2002 Eastern Conference Final Game 1
• 9:30 a.m. – Toronto Maple Leafs at Carolina Hurricanes, 2002 Eastern Conference Final Game 2
• 11:30 a.m. – Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs, 2002 Eastern Conference Final Game 3
• 1:30 p.m. – Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs, 2002 Eastern Conference Final Game 4
• 2:30 p.m. – Toronto Maple Leafs at Carolina Hurricanes, 2002 Eastern Conference Final Game 5
• 4:00 p.m. – Carolina Hurricanes at Toronto Maple Leafs, 2002 Eastern Conference Final Game 6
• 6:00 p.m. – NHL Tonight (Jamison Coyle, Stu Grimson and former Cane Kevin Weekes)