BostonBruins.com - Bruce Cassidy is preparing for a training camp unlike any he has experienced in his nearly 40 years around the National Hockey League. With an unprecedented pandemic forcing a shutdown approaching four months, Boston's bench boss knows that the league's restart will be anything but standard.
Currently slated for a July 10 opening, the Bruins' training camp - also known as Phase 3 of the NHL's Return-to-Play format - will require strict health and safety protocols, including frequent COVID-19 testing, social distancing, and stringent hygiene practices, adding another layer to the most grueling championship chase in all of sports.
"I'm excited to get back to work…the message for us hasn't changed in terms of what our ultimate goal is, our unfinished business is to be Stanley Cup champions," Cassidy, who led the Bruins to a league-leading 100 points and the Presidents' Trophy during the 2019-20 regular season, which was cut short after 70 games on March 12.
"But inside of that message will be a lot of the unknowns and how we have to be prepared to deal with that as it comes at us, which can be difficult because we don't know how it's gonna work out for players' families yet.
"That's gonna be the message, the mental toughness part is gonna determine who ends up raising that trophy at the end of the day. That's where I like our chances."
Cassidy, who has not been allowed at the rink during Phase 2, acknowledged that he will lean heavily on the Bruins' two leadership pillars, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, who have taken the reins during the team's voluntary workouts at Warrior Ice Arena. Understanding the players' mindsets as they begin to ramp up after such a lengthy layoff will be crucial in determining how camp should be conducted.
"We'll get together with Bergy and Zee first and see how these skating pods have gone," Cassidy said during a media conference call on Monday morning. "Just to make sure everyone is in a good place, get a temperature from those guys, where are the players at, are they comfortable with the situation, are they nervous, are they excited to get going, do you feel like the group has done their work? We'll get a little bit of that feedback first and go from there."
Video: Cassidy looks ahead to training camp challenges
As of now, Cassidy expects he will have a roster of either 28 or 30 skaters plus four goaltenders, which he identified as Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak and Providence netminders Daniel Vladar and Max Lagace. Teams are allowed an unlimited number of goalies on the roster given the potential for injury/positive tests, though the exact amount of skaters - as well as how many can travel to the NHL's bubble city - has yet to be determined.
"This is the question we're all asking," said Cassidy. "What happens when a player tests positive - if he's asymptomatic and gets cleared again after his one or two negative tests, whatever they determine it needs to be? Should you have those ['Black Aces'] guys on site to join your team in case the player or players need to miss two weeks?
"That's something I don't know the final rules on that…you're gonna need enough bodies. That's something that the general managers are discussing with the league right now and I assume the Players' Association. I assume it's gonna start at 30 and work its way to 28 and see what happens from there."
During the postseason, teams are used to carrying a 'Black Aces' squad made up of eight to 10 players from their AHL affiliate that continues to train in case they are needed because of injuries. Typically, that group is separated from the varsity and skates on its own, though that could change this postseason given the unusual circumstances.
"I know at some point we'll want to get to our group that we feel we're gonna play with," said Cassidy. "That would be more like your typical 24-man roster. And then have a second group…I don't know if they would be all together as a group of eight plus two goalies or if we would bring a few guys into our group.
"We'd also have to determine the maintenance of our group, how much work do they need? Obviously having them right there, if Bergy or Zee or whoever, for that matter, needs an extra day then we can use those guys in the main group.
"We would definitely be down to two groups fairly quickly because our guys are gonna need the reps together to sort of regain their chemistry. We had some sorting out to do to begin with a couple of lines."
Video: Rask, Halak join voluntary workouts at Warrior
Unlike a typical run up to the postseason, teams may still be tinkering with their lineups to determine what works best. The NHL's pause came roughly 10 days after the trade deadline, leaving little time for acquisitions like Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie to find their footing. Figuring out where they fit in, while also determining whether each player on the roster is in good enough shape could lead to some of the P-Bruins getting extended looks.
"The obvious necessity is injury or if there's positive tests within the group," said Cassidy. "The other area could be if a player comes in and condition-wise he's not there yet. We should have enough time to get him where he needs to be but if that's not the case and one of these younger guys has more to give then we'll certainly consider it.
"That's the facts of it. It's a short window to get it right so there will be some tough calls to make if players aren't up to speed in a hurry. But I'd like to think with the group we have we'll be fine in that regard."
Cassidy also noted that to this point all of the Bruins players and staff are healthy, and he has yet to hear of anyone having concerns about returning, whether it be because of the coronavirus or conditioning.
"So far, we've gotten good feedback in terms of where the players feel they're at," said Cassidy. "That could change as we get closer, maybe some more positive tests within the group could affect how players think, but so far so good with our guys.
"You've got to be careful. It's certainly an unknown time. The older you get the more at risk you are so coaches certainly factor into that equation. I get it. Right now, with our group, everyone is healthy - coaching staff, equipment staff, players, so you feel pretty confident but that could change.
"But until it does, I think we're all prepared to go back to work. I do believe the NHL will do their absolute best to make sure we're as safe as possible."