Coaches will finally get a chance to put their plans for the restart of the NHL season into action when training camps open Monday. But these camps for the 24 teams participating in the NHL Return to Play Plan will be different from what coaches and players are used to each September.
When teams return to the ice in earnest after the 2019-20 season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, it will be a race to get ready to play the biggest games of the season in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which begin Aug. 1, instead of the usual slow build through the preseason up to the start of regular season.
"Preparation is going to be key because you're going to go from a pause to 100 miles an hour in a hurry," Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett said.
Teams will have 13 days to get reacquainted before traveling to their respective hub cities - the 12 participating Eastern Conference in Toronto, and the 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton -- on July 26. Each team then will play one exhibition game before the qualifiers, which will include 16 teams playing eight best-of-5 series, and a round-robin among the top four teams in points percentage in each conference to determine seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The winners of the eight qualifier series will advance to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the eight losers will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery.
Making the most of the limited time teams have before heading to the hub cities will be essential.
"It's not training camp," said New York Rangers coach David Quinn, whose team (37-28-5, .564 points percentage) is the No. 11 seed in the East and will face the No. 6 seed, the Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, .596), in a qualifier series. "I know everybody is going to use those words, but it's not training camp. Time is of the essence. It's going to be a balancing act of pushing everybody, getting in the best shape possible without getting anybody injured, creating as much game-like situations as possible in practice."
That will involve intrasquad scrimmages and situational practices to get the players used to the feel of a game again. How hard the coaches push in the first several days will be determined by the players' conditioning, but they want to quickly develop a sense of urgency.
"You can't go too hard right away, but at the same time I don't really want it to feel like a training camp," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "Guys hate training camp, first of all, so I kind of want it to pick up where we left off. … I want to make sure we're feeling this is really special when we come out of this."
Players have had the opportunity to get some of their conditioning and timing back during Phase 2 of the Return to Play Plan: small group activities that began June 8. Coaches were not permitted inside team facilities during Phase 2, so training camp, which is Phase 3, will be their first in-person interaction with the players since the season was paused.
But coaches have been able to communicate with their players through video conferences and phone calls. The Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, .623), who are the No. 5 seed in the East and will face the No. 12 seed, the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, .500), in a qualifier series, have held weekly Webex meetings with their players to review their systems and the details they want to stress during camp and when games resume.
"These guys have seen this on a weekly basis and we're talking the language on a weekly basis with them," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "So my hope is that those Webex meetings will be very productive when we start to get back together and get on the ice."
Teams will be permitted to take 31 players, including goalies, with them to the hub cities. Teams can have 30 skaters and unlimited goalies at training camp - they'll have nowhere near the 60-plus players they'd have at a preseason camp -- and then make cuts before leaving.
Though having extra players will help for scrimmaging, managing a larger group during practices might be tricky. Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said his players will work with one large practice group initially, but he won't wait long to break them into two groups: one for the projected game lineup and a smaller one for the extras.
"Our guys are going need the reps together to sort of regain their chemistry, and we had some sorting out to do to begin with on a couple of lines," Cassidy said of the Bruins (44-14-12, .714), who will play the Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, .657), Washington Capitals (41-20-8, .652) and Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7, .645) in the Eastern round-robin.
Another difference with this training camp is coaches and management won't be doing as much evaluation of players for the long term. The focus will be on getting them ready for the qualifiers.
The teams in the best-of-5 series will also prepare specifically for their opponents.
"The good thing is we know our group well," Tippett said of the Oilers (37-25-9, .585), who are the No. 5 seed in the West and will face the No. 12 seed, the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514), in a qualifier series. "We'll go into it and we'll have a little bit of a refresher course on exactly how we want to play and how we want to go about things. We'll look at our opponent coming up, Chicago, and figure out if there's some things that we have to be aware of there, and we'll be ready to play."
NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen contributed to this report