The NHL took another substantial step toward resuming the hockey season, announcing Thursday evening that Phase 2 of its return to play plan — small-group workouts — can begin at team facilities as early as Monday.
As for the Blues, general manager Doug Armstrong said the team is not planning on opening Phase 2 at Centene Community Ice Center on Monday.
“I have talked with the players and they will tell us when they think we should open,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “If they feel comfortable training as they are (currently), they should. When they want us to open, we will."
The small-group workouts are voluntary and consist of individualized training activities both on and off the ice. A maximum of six players at any one time, plus a minimum of team staff, are allowed to work out at any one time.
Armstrong said last week that only about 10 or so players remain in St. Louis since the NHL began its coronavirus pause March 12. He likened Phase 2 to what happens in August and early September, before the start of training camp, when players trickle in to St. Louis and start skating on their own.
He said he had recommended “the guys just stay where they’re at till we get very close to the start of Phase 3.”
Phase 3, the start of formal training camp, isn’t scheduled to begin until July 10 at the earliest.
In announcing the protocols for Phase 2 on May 25, the league said players will be tested for COVID-19 two days before beginning Phase 2, then will be tested twice a week thereafter. Additionally, they will undergo daily temperature readings and be checked daily for any COVID-19 symptoms.
Social distancing at six feet must be maintained while in the facility, and masks must be worn while entering and leaving the building, and in the building when social distancing is not possible. An exception to the mask rule is when players are exercising — either on — or off ice.
More playoff details
When the NHL announced its 24-team postseason format last week, there were a couple of details missing. Namely ...
• Best-of-5 or best-of-7 series for Rounds 1 and 2?
• Re-seeding or an NCAA basketball tournament-style bracket after the qualifying round?
On Thursday, the league filled in the blanks.
The first and second rounds will consist of best-of-7 series. (It already had been announced last week that the qualifying — or play-in — round would be best-of-5 and that the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final would be best-of-7.)
So if you’re one of the 16 teams taking part in the qualifying round, it will take 19 victories to claim the Cup — and those teams could end up playing as many as 33 games if all five series go the distance.
Also, the league announced it would re-seed after each round. In other words, the highest-seeded remaining team plays the lowest-seeded remaining team after each round. The team with the second-highest seed plays the team with the second-lowest seed after each round. And so on.
In theory, this helps the top four seeds in each conference, who avoid the do-or-die qualifying round and instead play a three-game round-robin against each other.
Had the NHL gone instead with an NCAA-style bracket, it would’ve been possible for the No. 1 seed to face a No. 8 seed following the qualifying round, while the No. 4 seed played a No. 12 seed.
According to multiple reports, the players preferred having best-of-7 sevens in each of the four rounds following the qualifying round. And they favored re-seeding over a strict bracket. So they got their way on those two issues.
As for the Blues, Armstrong said he had no preference on either issue.
“Honestly, I was fine either way,” he said via text. “In the end, you have to play well to move on.”
With the playoffs scheduled for two hub cities with no fans in the stands, decisions also were announced on which team has “home team” status over the course of a series. (Strategically, this decides who has the last personnel switch following stoppages of play.)
• In the qualifying round, the higher-seeded team is designated as the home team in Games 1, 2 and 5. The lower-seeded team is considered the home team in Games 3 and 4.
• In the first round, second round and conference finals, the higher-seeded team is home team in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. The lower-seeded team is designated as home team in Games 3, 4 and 6.
• In the Cup Final, the team with the higher regular-season points percentage is designated as home team in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7; the team with the lower regular-season points percentage is the home team for Games 3, 4 and 6.
Thursday’s announcements came after approval by the league’s board of governors and the NHL Players Association. Of course, they only take place once the NHL and the NHLPA reach an overall agreement on resuming play.
O’Reilly speaks out
Ryan O’Reilly became the latest Blues player to weigh in on racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last week.
His statement read in part:
“I am deeply bothered by the death of Mr. George Floyd. . . . To remain silent is an act of violence given the situation. I grew up with many foster children in our own home, many marginalized people. It pains me as an athlete, a father and a human being that we are so indifferent to one another. We live in a world where millions of people are kept in poverty and discriminated against.”
O’Reilly went on to say he “can’t support the looting or the violence” but added: “Hats off to those peaceful protesters.”
Penguins player tests positive
The Pittsburgh Penguins announced Thursday that an unnamed player had tested positive for COVID-19. He was not in Pittsburgh, was isolated after experiencing symptoms and has since recovered, according to the Penguins.
In the early weeks following the NHL’s coronavirus pause, which began March 12, five Ottawa Senators and three players from the Colorado Avalanche had tested positive.
Once the playoffs began, the NHL plans to test players daily — which would amount to 25,000 to 30,000 total tests over the course of the postseason.