It still pains Jonathan Quick to remember the longest rehabilitation stint of his career.
It was tedious, tiring, and sometimes tortuous. Most of it all, it was long, taking months just to return to the ice, then another four weeks to get back in game shape.
Such time is required to get comfortable in the crease. The way a pitcher needs spring training, a goalie needs plenty of practice to rediscover his puck-stopping peak.
Quick was reminded Friday of that recovery process, a 4½-month ordeal resulting from a severe groin injury suffered in the first game of the 2016-17 season. During a conference call with reporters, the Kings goalie was asked, if this year’s NHL regular season were to resume, how much preparation he would need before feeling comfortable to return to competition?
“That’s a tough question,” he said. “From having to go through a couple injuries over my career … looking at it from that standpoint, taking time off, it’s a gradual buildup to playing again.”
Current circumstances, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that has prevented NHL action since March 12, are of course different. Quick’s health is fine this time. His readiness, however, is another story. Like the rest of the league, he has been stuck at home for the last six weeks, unable to go to the rink or face NHL-caliber shots in net.
Getting back to game level might not take a full month of practice — “I would imagine you might not need as much time because you’re not coming off an injury,” he said — but it certainly won’t be achieved after a few days either.
“It’s something that I personally never experienced before and I don’t think anyone in the league has,” Quick said. “It will be interesting to see how long they give us [to prepare] if we do come back and how well guys feel on the ice.”
It might be a moot point in the end. Despite the optimistic proposal of several potential plans to restart the season, there is little guarantee the NHL will be able to save its schedule amid the coronavirus crisis.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday the league is leaning toward a plan that would see groups of teams gather in select NHL cities and play games under quasi-quarantine conditions.
The health risk posed by such an arrangement is one thing. But there is a competition aspect to be considered too.
Hockey faces several unique challenges in its attempt to make a comeback. Unlike some of their NBA counterparts, NHL players haven’t had the luxury of practicing from home. Few have been able to step on the ice since the season was stopped last month, their gear gathering dust at a time most were supposed to be grinding through the playoffs.
For the bubble proposal Bettman floated Thursday to work, the league would have to find cities with enough resources — from hotels to medical staff and, crucially, nearby sheets of ice on which teams can practice — to accommodate as many as a dozen clubs, if not more, at once.
And then there is the goaltender conundrum, the position group that will seemingly need the most training time before games can begin.
“The biggest thing as a goalie is timing,” Vegas Golden Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury said last month. “You can do whatever, even in the summer to train and practice. But when you get to camp, when you see the NHL shots, the speed of the game, that’s something you need to catch up on.”
Already, the NHL is pushing its calendar to the limit. The league is determined to stage a full 82-game schedule in the 2020-21 campaign, yet still first has to complete about 15% of its regular-season games, an entire postseason, and at least some sort of an offseason at some point this summer.
If a resumption is possible, the league could jump straight to the playoffs (an idea Fleury wasn’t wild about from a goaltending perspective) and modify the postseason format. It could tighten its schedule and start the following season as soon as possible.
But before all that, the league needs to ensure the level of competition would be worthy of such extremes. That conversation will begin and end with the capabilities of its goalies. And to put them in the best spot, they might need a few extra weeks at least to get ready.
“It’s all just speculation,” Quick said. “Nobody knows what is going to happen. So we’re just, for the most part, trying to stay in shape and wait to hear; see what happens.”