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Letang gives player perspective on NHL's return to play plan

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

After Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford joined members of the media on Wednesday to discuss the NHL's announced "return to play scenario" (for an in-depth look at the plan, click here) Kris Letang did the same on Thursday to give the players' perspective.

"It's great (to have some progress)," Letang said. "The guys have been sitting home, they didn't really know what to expect. Obviously, there's a long way to go, but if you have a plan established it's a good sign. We just now have to make sure guys are getting ready in the safest environment possible and get ready to play."

 

Video: Kris Letang speaks about the NHL's Return to Play

Here is the rest of what Letang had to say…

* Letang is the Penguins' NHLPA player representative, so he was involved in the discussions with the league. He would keep his Penguins teammates up to date on everything he learned from those, and conversely, would pass along their thoughts and ideas.

The Penguins voted 'yes' to the 24-team playoff format, which features the top 12 teams from each conference on the basis of points percentage. 

"It was a long process," Letang said. "Not only to make it fair, but to make a number that actually works with the eight teams per side formula. It was tough to take the points that you get in the season, in the league standings, in your division. Also adding the fact that teams were on the verge of making the playoffs, and mixing everything with an amount of teams that would make it work. And 24 has always been the best number."

The top four teams from each conference will play a round robin tournament to determine the 1-4 seeding. The remaining eight teams will play a best-of-5 qualifying round. The fifth-seeded Penguins will open the qualifying round against the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

The format and series lengths of the First and Second Rounds have yet to be determined. Letang said that in talking to other players, the one point that often comes up is that everybody is used to the best-of-7 format.

"You know how it's structured," he said. "You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven. So, I think it's just easier to play a best-of-seven because everybody knows what to expect and you have no excuses of not being prepared for that."

From the players' perspective, the biggest issue Letang said still needs to be figured out is the safety of those traveling to the two "hub" cities that will host the playoffs, one for each conference.

"That's the No. 1 thing," he said. "Guys want to be secure there."

Letang also said the issue of players being away from their families for so long is something else that needs to be discussed in much further detail. But he has confidence that all of the issues will be resolved, as the NHL and NHLPA have done a tremendous job thus far of working together to find solutions.

"Everybody has the same goal," Letang said. "It's to grow the game and make sure we make our sport proud. But at the same time, questions about safety, which is the most important thing for everybody - that's what the focus has been on. I think the NHL and NHLPA agree on that. We both have the same main goals and we want what's best for our sport and the safety of people around us."

* The NHL has been in Phase 1 since the pause, with teams having been instructed to self-isolate as much as possible. Phase 2 is set to begin in early June, when it is expected that teams will be permitted to return to their home facilities for voluntary small-group training on and off the ice.

Rutherford said the players were told that UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex would be available by the end of next week or the start of the following week. While Rutherford stressed that participation is voluntary, he said there is a group of players that are eager to come back. Letang is one of them.

"I don't know a specific date, but it's something I want to be part of," Letang said. "I know the Penguins always put us in the best situation to succeed and to be safe. I think the right play is to come back and practice within our facility with our staff and our players."

When asked if he had any reservations given his medical history - which includes a stroke and neck injury - Letang said no.

"I had my fair share of questions, and they have all been answered," he said. "Certainly, I can say that I would be safe to play."

* Letang said the onus will be on the players in Phase 2 to make sure they are as prepared as possible for Phase 3, when formal training camps will begin after guidance from medical and civil authorities no earlier than the first half of July.

As Letang explained it, teams trust their players to do the necessary work during the offseason - "training hard, getting stronger and better conditioning" - so that when training camp actually starts, the coaching staff can focus on getting them up to speed with the team game.

"It's going to be up to the players to ramp up their work and make sure they're able to really simulate the conditioning style of a game," Letang said. "When training camp starts, I think coaches will really focus on the collective side of things because you don't have that much time and you're going to get right into it."

* Pittsburgh is one of 10 cities in the running to be a hub, along with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Toronto and Vancouver. The hub cities will have secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation.

If Pittsburgh is chosen, Letang doesn't necessarily feel that the Penguins would have any home-ice advantage.

"From what I heard, even if guys play in their own city, they would have to be put in the hotel away from everybody," he said. "But maybe the fact that you know your boards, your building, the way it's set up, I guess (that could be an advantage). But I don't think there's much advantage."

* And speaking of not having much advantage, Letang doesn't feel like any team will have one entering the playoffs.

"Guys are really starting from scratch," he said. "There's no momentum going in. There's no favorites. Everybody is starting equal, so I think it's a great opportunity for every single team. I don't think it's a better one or a worse one for any team."

That's applicable to the Penguins' matchup against Montreal. Under normal circumstances, the Canadiens would not have made the playoffs. But that doesn't mean the Penguins are taking them lightly.

"It doesn't matter where they were standing in the league," Letang said. "Montreal obviously is a young, fast team and people know that they have a great goaltender in Carey Price. As far as our team, I think we have to focus on just being better and trying to get fit for the challenge. At the end of the day, I think it's a great opportunity. We battle all year; we know what it takes to win and battle through tough opposition. So, I think we'll just do that in the postseason."

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