BostonBruins.com - Don Sweeney has not seen his players in person for over four months. The Bruins general manager has been restricted from observing any of the team's voluntary workouts over the last several weeks due to the NHL's strict Return to Play protocols.
Sweeney, however, is steadfast in his belief that the Black & Gold will be well-prepared when they hit the ice on Monday morning at Warrior Ice Arena to resume their quest for a Stanley Cup - one that has been on pause since March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They're all well-rested," Sweeney said with a smirk during a Sunday morning media call. "I really believe our players have taken care of themselves. Feedback has been that they're ready to go physically. Mentally, it's obviously a challenge. But Bruce [Cassidy] and his staff does a really good job of turning the dials as we go forward. We have a period of time that we know we have to get up to full speed. It doesn't have to be [on Monday]."
Boston will be disciplined in its approach over the coming weeks. With some 20 days to prepare for their first round-robin contest against the Philadelphia Flyers on Aug. 1, the Bruins know they must be cautious in their training, while also realizing that, unlike a normal training camp, they'll have just one exhibition game before the intensity ratchets up to its highest level.
"We don't have that luxury this time around," Sweeney said of easing into game action. "The players have to understand they have a very short window to get back up to full speed. You've got to be ready.
"We're not gonna hit the ice for three hours on Monday. We're gonna go back and get into our normal routines and incrementally move the pace of practice and physicality of practice along accordingly and make sure we're in full concert with our players as to how they're feeling.
"We have the benefit of a strong leadership group that can hopefully lead us in some of those areas."
Video: Sweeney Addresses Media Members via ZOOM Before Camp
Sweeney believes developing a routine will be critical for any team looking to have success during the NHL's return. With a bevy of health and safety protocols to follow during training camp, and even more intensive procedures once arriving in the Hub Cities, the players and staff must find ways to become as comfortable as possible with their surroundings.
"I think the mental aspect of things will be a real test to our group," said Sweeney, who also noted the players and staff must be sure to adhere to all of the distancing practices and other protocols that are in place at and away from the rink. "I think our group is really strong in that regard. We'll lean on resources from people that they tap into throughout the year and go through things as a group. But I think routine and structure will be important."
Nevertheless, it will be uncharted territory for everyone, bringing a mix of enthusiasm and uneasiness as hockey looks to make a safe return.
"We're all excited about playing hockey again," said Sweeney. "Is there apprehension or nervousness? Well, we always want what's best for the players and health of the players. Whether or not we stub our toe here along the way is to be seen.
"We're gonna have positive cases throughout this Phase 3, Phase 4…we have to avoid that outbreak…the league has done a really good job of lining things up accordingly in the Hub Cities.
"Toronto and Edmonton are well-prepared and we're gonna give it our best effort. Hopefully we're able to carry it on."
The Boys Are Back
The Bruins announced their 33-player Return to Play roster on Saturday evening with defenseman Steven Kampfer the only notable absence. The blue liner has opted out of the NHL's return because of family health concerns, a decision that Sweeney affirmed the team is "in full support of." Players have until 5 p.m. ET on Monday to opt out.
Sweeney also noted that there could be a player or two that misses the opening of camp to finish their international quarantine requirements. There was no clear indication of who those players might be, though David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase are among the players who spent time in Europe during the pause and have yet to take part in voluntary workouts at Warrior Ice Arena.
"Within a day or so we should be fully up and going," Sweeney added.
Included on the Return to Play roster are nine players that were in Providence at the time of the pause: forwards Paul Carey, Trent Frederic, Karson Kuhlman, Zach Senyshyn, and Jack Studnicka; defensemen Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril; and goalies Max Lagace and Daniel Vladar.
"Every one of those players has played games with us during the season," said Sweeney. "I think we're all comfortable that they can contribute at any point in time if they get the opportunity to jump into our lineup. You just don't know.
"For the re-start we're all going to have 31 players available to us…those players have all been an integral part of what we've tried to accomplish through the course of this year. They've earned the right to be here."
That's A Cap
Along with the Return to Play format, the NHL and NHLPA also agreed to a deal extending the CBA through the 2025-26 season. Among the major storylines is the salary cap, which will remain at $81.5 million for at least two years because of the economic fallout resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. A flat cap could cause problems for teams as they attempt to sign or retain free agents.
"We've had to run those simulations," said Sweeney. "We tried operating in a situation where we're treating every player fairly from a compensation standpoint. Obviously around the league, you're facing players with arbitration, try to do as much forecasting as possible and where the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
"We have some decisions to make. We may have to make some hard ones - no different than any other team - now that we have an understanding of what the parameters of the cap and mechanisms of the new CBA will be going forward."
The Bruins have a number of free agents following this season, including UFAs Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, and Joakim Nordstrom, as well as RFAs Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, and Matt Grzelcyk. Sweeney did not rule out negotiating with all of those players during the Return to Play process.
"I've never stated that we'll never have conversations," said Sweeney. "Ultimately, I think we'll have to take it case by case. I'm not gonna be overly aggressive as we go through this training camp, Phase 3, getting to Phase 4 and ultimately playing in playoffs. If something makes sense, we'll do it.
"Some players are very particular about not having those conversations until we're done and we respect that as well. We'd be in position to have those conversations.
"I think I'll touch base with each and every one of them - and that includes RFAs - that need to know where they're gonna be when we start up next year."
Sweeney said that he has reached out to his contemporaries and counterparts across the National Hockey League and the sports world to gauge how they have been handling the shutdown and what they are doing to keep their players and staff safe as the major sports leagues begin to re-launch their seasons.
"We're all in this together," said Sweeney. "Obviously the competition is gonna start back up…up until this point, there's been a lot of communication with the general managers. Each and every one of us has reached out to other sports to see how they're managing and how their players feel and what protocols we can individually put in place that may alleviate some of their concerns…the league has done a great job to try to get us to the doorstep and we'll have to see how we react moving forward."