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Return to Play Buzz: Drouin to return for Canadiens

Bjugstad out, Guentzel likely back for Penguins; Blue Jackets, Canucks getting healthy

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Welcome to the Return to Play Buzz. The NHL on Tuesday announced its Return to Play Plan that includes two hub cities hosting 12 teams each. The four top teams in each conference will play a Seeding Round Robin and receive a bye into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the remaining eight teams in each conference will play four best-of-5 series in the Qualifying Round, though no date has been set for play to resume.

Here is the Return to Play news for Wednesday:

 
Montreal Canadiens

Jonathan Drouin will be available to play for the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Qualifying Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, general manager Marc Bergevin said Wednesday.

The forward missed Montreal's last five games with an ankle injury before the NHL paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

The status of defenseman Victor Mete is less clear. Mete missed the final eight games after breaking his foot Feb. 18.

"[Drouin] is cleared to play," Bergevin said. "As far as Victor (goes), it's unsure. He went back home, he's been doing some rehab but until our own staff sees him, put their hands on him, I don't know. [Drouin has] been in Montreal so it's easier to give you an answer on him."

Bergevin said that he will defer to doctors as to whether forward Max Domi, a Type 1 diabetic, would be safe to play in the qualifying round, or beyond. Diabetes is among the conditions believed to put people at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I'm convinced that the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens would never put Max Domi in a situation where he would be exposed to an illness that would affect him short or long term," Bergevin said of the 25-year-old. "If the doctors decide that it's not safe for Max, for whatever reason, then he will not play. The values of the Canadiens will never put at risk the health of one of our players. Never, never, never. … The decision (for Domi) will be the best for him long and short term."

Bergevin said in a short, best-of-5 series, anything can happen.

"I think our chances are as good as any of the eight teams that have been awarded a (qualifying round) spot," he said. "Without putting any pressure on (goalie) Carey (Price), when you have a goaltender of that quality, anything's possible." -- Dave Stubbs, columnist

 
Pittsburgh Penguins

Nick Bjugstad will be out for the Pittsburgh Penguins after having spinal surgery for a herniated disk on Tuesday.

Although the forward is expected to be out a minimum of eight weeks, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said that he "won't be available for the rest of the season."

The forward (lower body) did not play in Pittsburgh's final game before the season was paused and was limited to 13 games this season because of core muscle surgery he had in November.

Forward Jake Guentzel, who has been out since Dec. 31 shoulder surgery, should be available when the Penguins play the Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round. 

"Jake is going through his rehab," Rutherford said. "Things are progressing fine. We still have a ways to go before we start playing. We are optimistic that he will be ready to play." -- Wes Crosby, independent correspondent

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Columbus Blue Jackets expect to have a healthy roster when they play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round.

Columbus was without defensemen Seth Jones (ankle), Dean Kukan (knee) and Ryan Murray (undisclosed), and forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Cam Atkinson (ankle), Alexandre Texier (back), Josh Anderson (shoulder) and Nathan Gerbe (groin) when they played the Vancouver Canucks on March 8, their final game before the season was paused.

"I think there's a good chance that we'll be fully healthy," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "I think Josh Anderson is probably the only one where the timeline is going to get close to when he would be ready. Everyone else is on schedule and should be ready to play."

Anderson, who hasn't played since Dec. 14, had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder March 2 and was expected to be out 4-6 months. Kekalainen said it is possible that he could be ready to play in mid-August if the Blue Jackets are still playing at that point.

That would leave forward Brandon Dubinsky, who hasn't played this season because of a chronic wrist injury, as the lone injured Blue Jackets player who definitely won't be available to play in the qualifying round or the entirety of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, should Columbus advance. 

Having a lineup at nearly full strength after battling injuries through most of the regular season has forward Nick Foligno excited about what the Blue Jackets can accomplish.

"My expectations are even more now and that's the way it should be," Foligno said. "If we're going to get healthier, then the bar gets raised, right? I think that's where I think our group has really learned that we never doubted ourselves. The guys that came in to help us jumped right in because they saw that this is the way we play, this is what's expected and they came in and did an outstanding job for us and held the line. And now with some guys coming back and being healthy, it just moves the line that much further ahead." -- Tom Gulitti, staff writer

 
New York Islanders

Adam Pelech will be able to play for the New York Islanders when they face the Florida Panthers in the qualifying round, general manager Lou Lamoriello said.

The defenseman sustained an injury to his Achilles tendon Jan. 2 and was expected to be out for the remainder of the regular season with a recovery time frame of four months.

"He's physically healthy, he certainly feels good. He's ready to play," Lamoriello said. " Adam, as you know, has been in a rehab program consistently since his injury and he has been cleared to participate once training camp does take place."

Pelech was leading the Islanders with 83 blocked shots and was second in average ice time per game (21:08), including 2:47 on the penalty kill, at the time of his injury.

"I don't want to make any predictions, [but] certainly he is a valuable piece to our team," Lamoriello said. "Like any of our players, we're going to have depth at all positions because of everyone being healthy. Certainly in a short tournament, the best players have to play and the best combinations have to play. ... But there's no question what his value is to the team." -- Brian Compton, deputy managing editor

 

Toronto Maple Leafs

Nicholas Robertson will be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs' expanded roster and could make his NHL debut when play resumes, general manager Kyle Dubas said.

The highly touted forward prospect, who led the Ontario Hockey League in goals with 55 in 46 games for Peterborough this season, is in Toronto under self-quarantine.

"I know his commitment to be in the best possible shape that he can be and that, combined with his talent and ability, makes me believe that he'll give a good run. ... We're excited to see him as part of it," Dubas said.

The Maple Leafs will play the Blue Jackets in the qualifying round. The date and location of the best-of-5 series is to be determined.

"The main thing about Nick is that he had a great season in Peterborough and continued to improve in what he can offer," Dubas said of the 18-year-old, who was selected by Toronto in the second round (No. 53) of the 2019 NHL Draft. "Obviously, he scored at a prolific level, one of the best scoring seasons in the history of the OHL. But the way that he scored, I think that was more important to us. Pressuring up the ice on the defensive side, making steals and scoring, shorthanded on the penalty kill, which is how he scored his 50th goal.

 "And I think more than anything, I looked at earlier conditioning level. The commitment to your fitness level as an individual and as a team is going to have such a major, major impact on how you perform coming back from this. And Nick is a person who is as committed as any that I've seen, certainly at that age." -- Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

 

Vancouver Canucks

Micheal Ferland and Josh Leivo could return for the Vancouver Canucks to play the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Qualifying Round, general manager Jim Benning said.

Ferland was expected to be out the rest of the season after recurring concussion symptoms limited him to 14 games in the regular season. Leivo fractured his kneecap against the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 19.

"I've had positive reports, but we'll just have to see as we get closer to play," Benning said of the forwards. "Both are doing physical therapy and their rehab to come back. As we get closer to the date, we'll see where they're at and make that determination then if they're able to play or not."

Ferland last played in the NHL against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 10, and an earlier return ended while playing his first game on a conditioning assignment with Utica of the American Hockey League on Feb. 14, when he left after the first period because of concussion-like symptoms.

Leivo initially was expected to be out 2-3 months, but Benning said April 29 that he was less optimistic about a return.

Goalie Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Christopher Tanev, out with injuries when the NHL paused the season, were cleared to play in April. -- Kevin Woodley, independent correspondent

 
Winnipeg Jets

Bryan Little's status remains uncertain for the Winnipeg Jets against the Calgary Flames in the qualifying round.

The center, who missed 54 games during the regular season because of injuries, hasn't played since he sustained a concussion and perforated eardrum Nov. 5 when he was hit in the head by teammate Nikolaj Ehlers' shot in a game against the New Jersey Devils.

"I don't foresee he's been ruled out, but I wouldn't say that as he's been ruled in," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "The way it was left, regardless of how the potential playing scenarios were going to happen, there were some doctor's appointments that were supposed to happen in the latter part of the summer, and those will be something that we'll kind of adhere to."

Little returned to skating with his teammates in January, but in early February he had surgery and was ruled out of the rest of the season.

"There was and still is a protocol that must be followed from a medical standpoint with him," Cheveldayoff said. "So not knowing the timing of any eventual Phase 3 or Phase 4 really comes into play, I can't really give you a definitive answer as to what Bryan's status may or may not be."

Defensemen Luca Sbisa (upper body; missed last 11 games) and Sami Niku (lower body; 10 games) likely will be available.

"I believe that time has healed all the things that they needed healing," Cheveldayoff said. -- Tim Campbell, staff writer

 

Edmonton Oilers

Mike Green and Joakim Nygard likely will be in the lineup when the Edmonton Oilers play the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round.

"I expect they'll both be healthy," Oilers general manager Ken Holland said. "Nygard, at the stoppage, we were expecting him to play late in (the) regular season so the beginning of April. Now we're at the end of May. Mike Green as well. I'm expecting they'll be ready to go."

Nygard, a forward, missed the final 22 games of the regular season with a hand injury he sustained Jan. 29. Green, a defenseman, sustained a knee injury Feb. 26 and missed the final seven games before the pause.

"Phase 2 (of the NHL's Return to Play Plan) will start in early June," Holland said. "Phase 3 won't be starting until from July 1 to July 15 time frame. I expect we'll have a healthy roster going to that training camp." -- Tim Campbell, staff writer

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