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What the NHL's return to play plan means for the Blue Jackets

Answering the biggest questions for Columbus and its fans

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

So, hockey is back? 

Not quite, but it's getting there. There are still a number of details to work out, but the NHL has at least firmed up how its return would look -- a 24-team tournament concluding with the awarding of the Stanley Cup sometime later this year. 

With everything moving quickly, BlueJackets.com has put this piece together to try to answer any questions you might have about where things stand, what comes next and what this means for Columbus fans.  

What does this mean for the Blue Jackets? 

Columbus is one of those 24 teams still alive and will take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in a best-of-five qualifying series when play resumes. The exact time of this series is to be determined, but the Blue Jackets at least know their next game will come against the Leafs, and it will take place in one of two "hub" cities the NHL will determine at a later date. 

If the Blue Jackets win that series, they're in the final 16 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If they lose, they're in the draft lottery, where they have a 3 percent chance of earning the No. 1 overall pick. 

Sounds great. When will this all happen? 

Per NHL officials, it's still going to be a while. The current framework includes players being able to return to team facilities in early June to take part in on- and off-ice workouts in small groups, known as Phase 2 of the return to play plan. Then, in early July, teams would be able to stage training camps (Phase 3), with the actual hockey starting in either late July or early August. No firm dates have been set because of the uncertainty of the situation and travel concerns for players, but those are the rough guideposts we're working with here. 

What details still need to be worked out? 

Plenty, and not all of them are NHL-specific. First of all, the virus will dictate a lot of this, as a potential "second wave" of spread throughout North America would have a big impact on society let alone hockey. But assuming conditions in the general population permit this plan to keep going forward, big issues like the host cities and timing of games are among the things that the NHL needs to decide on.  

The NHL's plans to welcome players to training in Phase 2 are pretty detailed when it comes to testing and safety protocols, but those will have to continue to be ironed out for training camps and the actual games. The NHL has said team traveling parties will be limited to 50 people, but how teams will function inside that bubble will also have to be worked out.

In other words, while there's a framework in place, there's still a lot the league and players will need to agree upon. And as CBJ captain Nick Foligno said Wednesday, everything must be done with the health safety of the players and the communities in mind, and any plan that falls short in that regard will go back to the drawing room.

Are the Blue Jackets healthy? 

This might be the most popular question on social media, and the answer is mostly yes. Such key players as Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Seth Jones are expected to be ready to go when the Blue Jackets return to the ice, as are Dean Kukan, Alexandre Texier and Ryan Murray, the latter of whom returned to play the last week before the coronavirus pause.  

According to general manager Jarmo Kekalainen yesterday, there remain questions about two players' ability to play right away -- Josh Anderson's rehab from March shoulder surgery makes him questionable to be ready at the start, while Brandon Dubinsky's chronic wrist injury means he will not be able to return.  

Anything else we should know about the roster? 

The Blue Jackets will be able to bring in anyone under contract for 2019-20 who they feel can help, and that includes Liam Foudy. The team's 2018 first-round draft pick had an excellent year in juniors and made his NHL debut in February, posting an assist in two games and not looking out of place at all. He was able to play only a handful of games with the Jackets during the season because of the NHL agreement with the CHL, but with London's season over, he'll be eligible to play full-time for the Blue Jackets this summer. 

Mikhail Grigorenko, whose contract signing is on hold until the Blue Jackets can file the paperwork with the league, will be ineligible to play as his contact is for the 2020-21 season. 

Kekalainen said the Blue Jackets will have a roster situation similar to playoffs past, with a game group and a group of "black aces" who are on hand to provide depth and challenge to get into the main group. Reports indicate teams will be able to have 28 skaters and an unlimited number of goaltenders on hand, though nothing official has been announced by the league.

Who will be the starting goalie for the Blue Jackets, Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo? 

This one will come down to what the coaching staff believes, but it's great to have two excellent candidates between the pipes. Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins showed the ability to serve as a No. 1 for a team for a long stretch during the season, so the Blue Jackets have good options.  

Will Columbus host games? 

It's possible the capital city will become a hub for NHL activity. With a beautiful arena, multiple sheets of ice (Kekalainen confirmed the CBJ bid could utilize Ohio State and OhioHealth Chiller facilities), plenty of hotel capacity and easy travel from many of the league's Eastern Conference cities, Columbus is one of 10 cities still in the running to host games according to the NHL. 

Should Columbus win, it would be another feather in the cap of a city that has been on the rise when it comes to hosting sporting events big and small, but benefits to the average fan would be minimal given the buildings will almost certainly be closed to spectators. 

There is also a strong possibility that if Columbus does become a host city, the Blue Jackets won't play here. NHL officials said they may set things up so there's no perceived competitive balance issues, meaning Columbus may be sent elsewhere and wouldn't necessarily have home-ice advantage even if it is chosen as a hub city.  

What about next year? 

Obviously, resuming the season in late July or early August -- when teams would usually be closer to returning to training camp than playing playoff hockey -- means next season will likely not start on time. 

Bettman said the league will still shoot to play an entire 82-game season next year, but that it could start as late as January (think of kicking things off with the Winter Classic). That will all be sorted out at a later date, but don't expect summer hockey and an October start to the 2020-21 campaign. 

Anything else? 

It sure is nice to have some hockey talk back, isn't it? We hope you and yours have been safe through this whole thing and hope to see you around as soon as we can.  

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