Last week, the NHL moved into Phase 2, which permits players to practice at team facilities in small groups and on a voluntary basis. But more importantly, we are looking at an actual start date for Phase 3, which is the outset of a midsummer training camp for the 24 teams participating in the NHL's return to play and its subsequent four-round Stanley Cup Playoff tournament.
Those two dozen NHL clubs will open their training camp doors on July 10 to start prepping for what should be a wild ride to crown a 2020 Stanley Cup champion. Upon completing that training camp, the Capitals will play a three-game round robin tourney against a trio of top Eastern Conference foes: Boston, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.
At last, we have some certainty and some dates to anticipate.
Caps coach Todd Reirden isn't able to do much yet. Coaching staffs must keep their distance until later this week when goaltending coaches and an assistant coach are permitted to interact with those small groups of players who are skating and working out on their own. Reirden is still hunkered down in his local residence, laying the groundwork and planning for next month's camp and what he hopes will be a long postseason ride for his team.
On Monday, Reirden took a break from that prep work to conduct a Zoom press conference with local media on a variety of topics, mostly relating to what to expect between now and the start of that round robin tournament, which seems likely to start in early August, give or take a few days.
Video: Todd Reirden On Phase 2
Washington roared out of the gates in 2019-20, and it soared to a gaudy 26-6-5 record in the season's first 37 games, tops in the NHL. But the Caps followed that extended stretch of superior play with a decidedly ordinary run over the next two and a half months. They were just 15-14-3 in their last 32 games of what was an abbreviated 69-game season for them, and it's fair to wonder what's in store for us when play resumes.
"The statistics don't lie," says Reirden. "We were looking at - in the middle of December - being the top team in the league, and then from that point on, things start falling off. We talked about dealing with adversity with our team, going through things that weren't as smooth as we would have liked them to have been, but I felt like we were coming out of it in the last few games [before the pause]. Obviously we weren't perfect at that point, but I did like the direction our team was headed and what we were going to be able to do once we did start to be able to click on all cylinders.
"Certainly the start of the season - and after a training camp - will be a point of reference for us, because of how we came out of training camp on and started that year. I really liked a lot of the things that our team showed and how we played, and that will be key for us to get back to that as soon as possible here once we do get back up and running in that Phase 3 and Phase 4."
Washington's own small group of players - including John Carlson, Lars Eller, Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov - started skating and working out last week, and the rest will slowly descend upon MedStar Capitals Iceplex between now and July 10. In preparation for the start of camp, Caps players and staff took part in a mandatory Zoom call with the team's medical and training staff last week, giving them a clear picture of the sweeping changes they'll encounter upon returning to MCI.
"As we get closer to that July 10 [date]," says Reirden, "with what was announced by the NHL and the [Players' Association] last week, it gives a signal that the 10th is coming quickly here and things obviously need to be getting a little bit more organized for everybody to be able to get back here in time, and figuring out exactly how we can do it.
"Our medical staff and doctors did a phenomenal job of preparing. They prepared everybody to come back in this Phase 2 situation right now. In particular with those four guys - and I've talked to them before and after their first skating session, just to see how it went - there were no hiccups there at all and no positive tests. We'll continue to move along here, and as we add guys - as we know, the rules of just being at six players [per small group] - I expect players to be making their way here in the next probably week to two weeks and in the beginning of July. But they have to go through some certain protocols to be able to get on the ice.
"Right now I'm happy with where they're all training. They're all on the ice in some respect in their different hometowns in different areas. And in talking to them, they're getting excited about the opportunity, but they're obviously cautiously optimistic and making sure that safety is first. Safety is definitely first for our players and our staff, and for the communities that will be taking part in hockey."
Once the Caps do get through Phases 2 and 3, Phase 4 promises to be a reeling, rocking, rolling ride [thanks, Bob Dylan] over a period of two or two and a half months beginning in early August. The league will whittle that 24-team field down to one Stanley Cup champion, and virtually all 24 teams will head into Phase 3 at peak health. Typically, Reirden would prepare for a unique and unknown situation such as this by researching and by talking to those who have experienced or endured it previously. But this situation is different. Nothing like this has ever happened before, so there is no sounding board for Reirden to turn to for answers or guidance.
"You talk about experience and the importance of experience, and I've talked a lot about that over the last couple of years and growing as a head coach," says Reirden. "And this is a first for everybody, that's for sure. You can try to compare it to whatever is out there in terms of lockouts and different situations, but no one has ever gone through what we're going through now. So it's a first time for everybody.
"I go back to some of the core basics that make me who I am, and that's the preparation, the organization and the importance of detail. And that's what's gone on for the last number of months here between my staff and I, and being able to be adaptable and adjust to whatever comes our way because it's not going to be perfect, and we know that. That was probably one of the first things I said to our staff and I said to our players, is we have to be able to adjust and adapt and to fight through things. Maybe some of the tough times we went through during the year as a team, I think are going to be areas we can look back on and say that we've hit some bumps in the road, certainly no bumps like we're about to partake in. But it's something that all you can do is be prepared and organized and detailed with your plans - and I'm a big plan guy -but then be able to put those plans into place when the decisions are made."
Along those lines, Reirden notes that goaltending coach Scott Murray and longtime assistant coach Blaine Forsythe will be joining the players on the ice this Thursday, the first day in which they are able to do so via the rules the league has laid down for Phase 2.
Since we're less than a month from the start of Phase 3, Reirden also fielded a few questions relating to personnel. Goaltending philosophy will be an interesting thing to watch around the league, given that teams tend to settle in with their No. 1 netminder for the duration of the playoffs. But playoffs typically follow immediately after an arduous 82-game regular season spread over six grueling months.
This time around, those goalies are coming in as cold as everyone else, and like everyone else, they'll need to ramp up their game from training camp to an elite level in a matter of weeks. Leashes might be shorter in some instances, but Reirden insists the Caps' crease belongs to Braden Holtby.
"Obviously we all know the importance of that position and having a successful goaltender that is playing well, that the players in front of him believe in and vice versa," says the Washington bench boss. "And obviously Braden Holtby's body of work in playoff games speaks for itself, and how he definitely helped our team to win our first ever Stanley Cup and was a huge, huge part of that.
"I'm happy to see that Braden's back here in town right now working, and he'll be working with our goalie coach coming up later this week when we're allowed to have staff join these sessions, so that's exciting. But obviously, there are going to be lots of things at play here.
"Going into it, it's Braden Holtby's job to lose. I feel confident in him, and I felt confident with where things were going right before the pause in terms of how this game was coming around, and I think he'll get the first crack at it. Obviously, we're going to be all evaluating as a team and, and ultimately the thing we have to do is put our team in the best situation where we can have success. If that's Braden, then we're going to go with Braden, but I think you have to expect to see some of [Ilya] Samsonov here obviously in a preseason game, and whether we're doing some intrasquad games here when we do start phase three of training camp in those situations where he's ready and prepared. As we know, the one thing that I've taken from all this is we've got to be adaptable and be ready to adjust anything that can happen, and lots of things can go awry, especially in the way that this NHL [playoff] is going to be played out. So we need to have both of our goalies be ready, and on top of that our third and fourth goalies need to be ready to play. It's a difficult position to play as it is, let alone now after a long break."
Just before the League paused and headed into Phase 1, the Caps made a couple of key veteran acquisitions in the days leading up to the NHL's Feb. 24 trade deadline. The Caps acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon from San Jose on Feb. 18 and they added scoring winger Ilya Kovalchuk in a Feb. 23 deal with the Montreal Canadiens. While both players were quick to fit in with their new teammates off the ice, Dillon played in 10 games and Kovalchuk just seven with Washington before the pause. Both players will now have the opportunity to go through a full training camp and to gain a greater understanding of the Caps' system and style of play.
"Those are two really good adds for our team," says Reirden. "We felt like long term that those would really help us as we got to the end of the year and then went into the playoffs. We did a lot of research on both players and liked how they were going to fit into our room, and as expected they did. I think from the growth of their game and understanding what's expected of them in our organization is, it was important for them to get on the same page and understand where exactly we were going with our team and the style of play that we have.
"This pause will allow us - and obviously, it's allowed both of them - to take a step back, which doesn't happen very often. [They can] kind of take it all in, and then realize that we've got the makings of something pretty good here with our team and something special, and how fortunate they are to be a part of it and how excited they are to get back whenever it's safe to do so, and see where this thing takes us.
"But getting them all up and running right from the get go, we're almost all starting from the point of like day one of training camp. It'll be helpful for them to all be on the same learning curve as everybody else."
If all goes well, we are less than two months away from having actual live hockey back in our lives, even if we'll be watching it from our couches rather than from our seats in the arena. Although there are still some details and some fine points to be hammered out between the League and the Players' Association and still a bit of cloudiness and uncertainty, there is a world of difference from Phase 1 to Phase 2 in that regard.
"We're kind of setting the tone for how things are going to be moving forward," asserts Reirden. "We'll do everything we can to prepare our players to be ready for that round robin game where we can affect our seeding, and then in addition to that, going into our first playoff series against whoever that may be. I know that our players are excited about having that opportunity and feel confident in our group. It's going to be something different than anyone's ever gone through, and that's something that's intriguing and it's going to be who handles that stuff the best.
"I feel great about that situation with us having a veteran team, but how it all plays out is still the NHL's decision on how the dates work and how those decisions are made, and it's up to us to as coaches and players to be able to respond and to be able to react accordingly."
That round robin tournament Reirden alludes to is designed to enable the top four teams in each conference to ramp up its collective game against top caliber opposition while the other 16 teams are participating in a best-of-five play in series. Stakes will be high for all 24 teams, and that trio of round robin games will also determine the playoff seeding of those top four clubs in each conference.
We may not know the exact start date of Phase 4, but we know the Caps will play games against the Bruins, Flyers and Lightning in that round robin. We also know that pre-scouting for those games will be another unique experience. There is no recent game film to look at, and the Capitals haven't faced Boston or Tampa Bay since the calendar flipped to 2020.
"They're all outstanding teams," says Reirden. "To end up in the top four and be able to not be involved in that 'buy-in' round is a credit to how those teams have done this year. We know that we have our work cut out for us in those first three games of a round robin and even the two exhibition games, it's all it's all part of the plan to be able to put us in a situation where we're able to continue to improve and get better with every day that passes, and how we're dealing with adversity that comes our way - playing at different times and playing in one venue, not having fans - and all those type of things will be discussion points for our team as we move forward from here.
"But I feel really excited about the opportunity and to be able to play those best teams in the league are going to be a real measuring stick for us early on. We know that they're not going to be looking to change much systematically, and that's because of the success they've had individually - their teams and their individual players - so we can expect to see much of the same thing systems wise. We have obviously started that preparation process already and have been for a while now, and we'll be prepared at the drop of the puck for whatever comes our way."