The much-discussed NHL return-to-play plan is starting to feel real. Yesterday, the league and the Players Association announced that Phase 3 -- formal training camp -- is slated to start on July 10.
There are still some major things that have to be worked out, and the July 10 date makes the assumption that conditions remain stable to protect the health and safety of the players on the 24 teams that will return for the postseason. The length of Phase 3 camp has yet to be determined. I have heard that it might be structured as two weeks NHL team training facilities plus one additional week in the yet-to-be-decided "hub cities.
More and more, though, it looks like play could resume by early August with the play-in qualification round for the lower eight teams per conference plus and top four playoff seeding round-robin (in which the Flyers will take part) before the start of the Conference Quarterfinals.
By the time Phase 4 starts, the 24 remaining teams will be four-and-a-half months removed from the last time they played a game. Thus, Phase 3 will be dedicated to preparing for these unusual circumstances. Unlike a typical September training camp, there won't be a full slate of exhibition games whereby teams can gradually get ready for the regular season. Once play starts, teams will have to hit the ground running very quickly or their return will be a lot shorter than they'd have liked.
With that in mind, here are three decisions and adjustments that every returning team (including the Flyers) will have to make during Phase 3.
1. Goaltending Plan. Whether a team typically uses a "tandem starter" arrangement during the regular season or has a workhorse No. 1 goalie and gives his backup selective spot starts, all teams will have to consider how they manage their goalies' workload as they prepare for Phase 4. It may be hard at first to go exclusively with one goaltender once the games start. What if he gets hurt? What if he isn't immediately in top form? Also, because the AHL season has been canceled, NHL teams will have to get sufficient reps for their "third option" goalie to be game-ready if needed.
In Phase 4, at least for the teams such as the Flyers who will be in the round robin, I would not be surprised to see the goaltending duties split. For example, perhaps Carter Hart will get the first and third games of the round robin, and Brian Elliott will get the middle game. You may even see Alex Lyon serve as the backup for one of the round-robin games.
2. Re-emphasis on systems. Usually, in the practices leading up to and during a playoff series, the on-ice sessions are relatively short. There is a lot of video work done on understanding the pre-scouts and strategy. Above all, between-game, rest is at a premium because of the intensity of the upcoming games.
The Phase 3 sessions will be more like September training camps under a returning coach. Players will have to re-familiarize themselves with some of the details of the systems (forecheck, breakout, special teams, etc.) and will engage in battle drills on the walls and around the net. However, at least for the teams that will be in play-in qualifiers -- which will be best-of-five series -- there will also be playoff-like elements involved, where the club is preparing for a specific opponent.
3. Conditioning and stamina. The primary reason why Phases 2 and 3 are protracted in length is to give players and teams every opportunity to get back into tip-top game shape and to reduce the injury risk. One benefit of the protracted time off was that players had time to heal nagging injuries.
However, there is no substitute for game legs and game lungs, no matter how much game conditions are simulated in camp. Right from the get-go, at least for the teams in the qualifiers, teams' key players will have to go back to playing 20-plus minutes a night while also still trying to recover their timing and hands.
I expect that the first few games of Phase 4, no matter how hard teams prepare during Phases 2 and 3, are going to be pretty sloppy. In fact, I'd be shocked if it were otherwise. But that will add to the air of unpredictability to what will happen once the puck drops.
The one and only sure bet: Expect the unexpected.