The length of Roman Josi's hair escaping out the sides of his cap wasn't the only thing that had changed since the last time the Predators captain spoke to the media via video chat.
That first meeting during the NHL's pause came in April, as he and the rest of his teammates trained for what they hoped would be some sort of return to the ice this summer. Now, as the calendar reads mid-June, those plans continue to fall into place.
Josi and the Preds now know they will play the Arizona Coyotes in the Qualifying Round of Phase 4 of the NHL's Return To Play Plan that was announced by the League at the end of May. Along with approximately 10 of his teammates, Josi is still in Nashville training and preparing to begin official team workouts.
The 30-year-old says the Preds will begin those sessions "soon" with a return to Bridgestone Area for on and off-ice activities in small groups (no more than six players at a time) as outlined in the NHL's guidelines for Phase 2 of the plan.
From there, Phase 3 would arrive with the start of a formal training camp on July 10 - the true start of what Josi knows may just be the most important camp of his career.
"It's just getting back to that playing shape really quickly," Josi said Wednesday of what will be most important, as his team reunites on the ice. "You're working while you're practicing, but playing games is a whole different story. So, I think using this time right now to get back into shape [is key], and then during training camp, I think it's going to be really fast. Everybody's rested, the games are going to be intense and whoever builds that chemistry the quickest and gets back to their A-game the quickest will have a really good chance."
The Predators - and 23 other NHL clubs - feel as though they have what it takes to make a championship run once games begin again, and the structure in which it would happen makes sense to Josi. Predators General Manager David Poile spoke on the 24-team tournament and the Return To Play Plan shortly after it was announced, and the GM says while he knew there wouldn't be a perfect scenario in these imperfect times, this setup was the best option - and Josi agrees.
"They did a good job, and it's not easy to come up with a perfect plan," Josi said. "Like everyone else in the world, you have to adjust. Us as the players, we knew there was going to be some kind of adjustment, but honestly, I think it's going to be really competitive… There are no fans, and that's a differ circumstance, but it's still the playoffs and I think they did a pretty good job with the whole plan. The integrity of the game was really important, and I think they did a really good job."
Video: Josi chats training camp and facing Coyotes
Not only is the setup leading into the postseason unique, the amount of time the Predators have to prepare to face the Coyotes is worth noting as well. Never before have two teams had two-plus months to study the other in advance of a series (the Preds and Yotes will meet in a best-of-5), and while that doesn't necessarily provide an advantage for either side, there's no doubt both clubs will have done their homework.
"You talk about Arizona, they're always a tough team to play against," Josi said. "They're very structured, very good defensively and they work really hard. They're always tough games, always a tough team to play against and I think it's definitely a little different to have a training camp preparing for one team. All the teams are probably putting a lot of emphasis during training camp to prepare for that team. Normally, if you have a playoff series you might have a couple days or a week maximum to prep for opponents, so this will be a little different."
In addition to getting ready for the Coyotes, the Predators will, of course, be focusing on improving their own game too. Head Coach John Hynes, who was hired midseason in January, said Monday he's looking forward to getting an actual training camp with his team for the first time to continue to implement systems. Josi, in turn, also believes the extra time with Hynes will be beneficial as the group looks to reset from where they left off in March.
"When [Hynes] came in during the season, obviously we didn't have a lot of time to practice," Josi said. "We were in the midst of the season playing a lot of games, so there wasn't a lot of time to practice all the new systems and all that stuff, so a training camp will definitely be helpful. I think he can bring in his assistant [coaches] a little more where we've got some more time to work on things."
The Predators have seen a lot as a team over the last nine months, and although they haven't laced up their skates together for the past three, they believe there will still be plenty left in the tank come puck drop, hopefully sometime in August.
"Every time you go through some adversity as a team you learn something from it," Josi said. "If you go through a good stretch or bad stretch there's always something to learn from. Coming back, every team is kind of starting fresh - it's almost like a new season. I've talked to a lot of guys, and we're definitely excited, we're motivated; obviously, it was an up-and-down year, so we have a lot to prove during these playoffs."