MONTREAL — I’m an optimist by nature, but I’d be lying if I said the doomsday scenario of the 2021 NHL season being cancelled hasn’t taken residence in my mind.
If I’m being fully transparent, that scene set up shop in the recesses a few weeks ago and it’s slowly made its way towards the cerebrum over the last couple of days.
I still believe they’ll play. I believe that losing the season would have a far more devastating financial impact on the brand and the long-term health of the league than playing without fans in the interim and that all parties involved understand that, too. And I believe that the owners and players can fight right now over how to mitigate an imbalance in the 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue, but they’ll inevitably find a compromise.
I believe all of that because 100 per cent of zero is zero and there are far too many actors in this who can’t or won’t accept zero.
But the rhetoric at present isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring.
Neither is the COVID-19 surge we’re experiencing both here and across the border. The cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising everywhere, and restrictions we’ve had over the last couple of months in Quebec are being adopted in key markets across the country and in certain parts of the U.S., too.
What’s become abundantly clear from watching other hockey/professional sports leagues — both in North American and in Europe — is how much contingency planning needs to go into running a 48-60 game NHL season, and I hope that operation isn’t falling by the wayside while the financials are being sorted. It’s not a matter of if the league will have to change on the fly, but more so one of how it will have to when something goes wrong. Because many things are bound to go wrong without a bubble operation, and there are so many variables they don’t or can’t control — from the virus unexpectedly raging in a market they’ve designated as a playing hub to government restrictions being imposed at a moment’s notice.
Outside of the health concerns and financial hurdles, which are clearly occupying my thoughts, there are actual hockey implications of the season being cancelled.
It’s a nightmare scenario for any team, but particularly for the one in this city.
Imagine that by the next time you see Carey Price and Shea Weber on the ice they’ll be 34 and 36 years old, respectively, instead of 33 and 35, and then think about the $80 million Geoff Molson spent this off-season securing newcomers Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli to long-term deals. Sure, those players will be a part of the foundation for at least a few years to come, but the incentive to get them now wasn’t just because they were available but mostly because the Canadiens wanted to capitalize on the shrinking window they have to win while Price and Weber are still playing at the level we saw from them back in August.
Naturally, they don’t want to see that window shrink even more.
On another note, player contracts had a year burned off of them in 2005-06, when the league resumed after cancelling the ‘04-05 season. If this season gets cancelled and this issue gets dealt with the same way — which isn’t guaranteed, based on what I’ve been told — consider the implications.
Think about Phillip Danault going from playing out a contract year to instantly becoming an unrestricted free agent. That would make what’s currently a hard decision even harder for management — especially if the upper limit of the salary cap decreases over time (how could it not if this season got cancelled?).
Or… don’t think about any of this stuff at all and try to just continue keeping the faith we’ll have hockey back relatively soon. We’ve had enough experience with NHL labour disputes to know it’s a sound idea to ignore all the rhetoric and the optics until we approach an actual deadline.
As our Chris Johnston recently pointed out during one of his remarkably informative daily television hits with our anchors, we’ve seen 48-game seasons start halfway through the third week of January and Stanley Cups awarded in those years well before the middle of July, which is when the NHL reportedly wants the season completed by so as not to interfere with the Summer Olympics.
In speaking with a few players last week — admittedly a very small sample — they’re pushing back their tentative plans to mobilize to their respective playing cities to Jan. 1, with hopes that abbreviated training camps could start two weeks later and games could be played before the end of the month. So, that fits with the history, even if it doesn’t fit with the NHL (curiously) maintaining they’re still targeting a Jan. 1 start date.
If those few players are right, you’d think the NHL and NHLPA would have to have their business sorted by the final week of December, which means we’d have a ways to go and a lot of buzz and optics to ignore until things get truly serious.
One executive we touched base with Thursday said he thinks the timeline those players are planning around might be as much as a month ahead of schedule, adding that he’s concerned about whether there will, in fact, be a season.
But the executive also qualified this by saying that he, too, is an optimist by nature and that COVID-19 has (unfortunately) brought much pessimism to his outlook in general.
I think, to a degree, we’re all living in that headspace right now, so I’m urging you not to abandon your nature if you’re a glass-half-full type like me.
Meanwhile, there’s still plenty of optimism around the Canadiens right now, so let’s address some of it in this notebook.
On Cole Caufield, Alex Romanov and the world juniors
I touched base with Caufield earlier this week to talk about how he used the lengthy pause between last season and this one to train, the start of his sophomore season at Wisconsin and his ambitions to prove he’s ready to jump in with the Canadiens at the end of his college season, among other things.
Loved his answer to this question about pressure, expectations and the eyes of the hockey world fixated on his statistics:
I also asked Caufield about turning last year’s performance with Team USA at the World Junior Championship into a distant memory with a dominant performance at this year’s tournament, and about how much he thinks that performance factors into whether or not the Canadiens will want to sign him at the end of the season.
I did so knowing that he’d respond that every game this year plays a role in the evaluation the Canadiens must make, but I think it’s obvious his 2020 tournament — in which he only managed a goal and an assist in five games — was a decisive factor in keeping him in college for one more season.
I’ve spoken with scouts over the years who cringe over how much stock we put into a two-week tournament, but the irony is that members of NHL management teams and coaching staffs put just as much stock into it.
Take Romanov’s case as an example. Had the 20-year-old not been dominant in both appearances at the tournament with Russia, it’s hard to imagine the Canadiens would have brought him over this fast from the KHL.
Granted, the Canadiens all seem to be in agreement that Romanov’s usage by CSKA Moscow was considerably impacted by the fact that it was known he’d be leaving for the NHL in short order. They’ve willfully ignored his menial offensive output over the last two seasons (a total of one goal and 11 points in 86 games) because his average ice-time was far lower than they thought it should be, based on what they saw from him at the world juniors.
The Canadiens have put so much stock in those performances — and in the impression Romanov recently left over a half-dozen bubble practices as a black ace — that they’ve all but guaranteed him a spot on their blue line this season.
You have to think Caufield would have all but secured a spot up front — and that perhaps one of Toffoli or Anderson might not have been acquired — had his 2020 world junior performance mirrored his freshman season at Wisconsin, where he was outstanding.
So yeah, it’s going to be a huge couple of weeks for Caufield when the 2021 tournament gets underway.
High expectations for Romanov
Canadiens defence coach Luke Richardson held nothing back in his Zoom conference with media members Tuesday; it’s clear he believes Romanov will have a big impact immediately and that it’s not out of the question he’ll move his way up the lineup quickly.
“At this point in time, based on what I’ve seen, I’m not scared at all that he’s not able to do any kind of job in the NHL,” Richardson said. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on him; he’s such a competitive guy I think he’ll do that himself, we just need to help guide him and I think his attitude of killing plays especially will add to the way we play. We like to have the puck, and he’s going to play into that role for us extremely well.”
Richardson also believes Romanov has more offence to his game than his numbers suggest.
“He can skate, he’s quick, he can move, he can get up ice, he loves to shoot the puck — everybody does nowadays, but he can really shoot the puck. So that’s the way we kind of play — we love to add a fourth man to the rush… we love having that fourth guy coming in as a second wave because everybody defends so well now that if you can’t get to the net on the first rush, a little curl up and you can get the second guy skating right in. I think he can fit right into that mould and be that fourth attacker in a lot of the rushes that we like to use.”
Depth the key on D
Richardson repeated several times that the increased depth of his blue line seals off one of the biggest holes he felt the Canadiens had last season.
“We have Romanov coming in and getting [Joel] Edmundson at the same time, with our ‘Big Three’ [Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot] who played so well in the playoff bubble and who are healthy, signed, and ready to go. And then we have guys like [Brett] Kulak and [Victor] Mete who can really skate. And then guys like [Noah] Juulsen, [Josh] Brook… [Cale] Fleury played some really good games for us. That’s a really good depth chart for us to have in the NHL.”
As Richardson noted, that depth gives them the flexibility to reduce Weber’s minutes if need be, to bump Romanov up the lineup if he proves worthy, and to use Edmundson on the right side of the third pairing if the situation calls for it.
Power play tweaks on the horizon
One of the first things Kirk Muller said in his return to the Canadiens as an associate coach, back in 2016, was, “Show me great players and I’ll show you a great power play.”
There have been good enough ones in place for the Canadiens to have a better power play under Muller’s guidance than the one that’s cratered to the bottom of the barrel over the last two seasons.
But the team could make a significant leap in this department this season based on who’s there now.
As Muller pointed out on a Zoom last week, it’s not just the quality of Anderson and Toffoli that promises to make the power play better; it’s also where they fit and what they specifically do.
“What’s exciting is that these guys are capable of making really good plays in tighter areas around the net,” said Muller. “These guys both like to play in those areas and if you have them available, I think that’s going to really deter people from cheating on (Weber).
“Toffoli is a right-hander. Sitting in that slot, he’s had some great success. You watch, he’s got quick hands, so he can make plays in those areas. He has the ability to score in that slot with his shot. He can be very dangerous and effective, which could open things up for other guys. As for Josh, he’s a big body. He can play around the net; he can use that size. I know he hasn’t played a lot [on the power play] but if you look at what he’s capable of doing, and his ability to play around there, that net presence — which is huge on a power play — I think he can be effective on the power play in that position.”
I wouldn’t disagree with any of that.
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