Column: COVID-19 creates complications for Kings and Ducks ahead of NHL season
The NHL faced down the coronavirus pandemic, successfully staging its restart and Stanley Cup playoffs amid health checks and strict rules in bubbles created in Edmonton and Toronto. The Kings and Ducks were among the seven teams that didn’t qualify for the expanded postseason party. If it feels like forever since they played, it’s not an example of time having become a shapeless blob with little to distinguish days, weeks, and months. It really has been a while.
The non-playoff teams will open training camp on Thursday, the Kings in El Segundo and the Ducks in Irvine, behind closed doors. Given a three-day head start on the rest of the NHL — less than they wanted but all that could be squeezed into a compacted calendar — they will be among the first to face issues weightier than the usual guesses about older players’ chances of bouncing back or which rookies might make the roster.
The overriding question is whether the NHL can safely get through a 56-game season outside a bubble with minimal disruption. The NBA postponed a game on the second day of its season for COVID-related reasons, and the San Jose Sharks are holding their camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., because Santa Clara County banned contact sports. It’s unclear if they will be permitted to play home games in San Jose. The NHL, which temporarily realigned and created an all-Canada division and intra-division schedules to cut travel, will have to be flexible.
“You’ve got to be prepared for things to happen,” Ducks general manager Bob Murray said. “You hope your players are respectful of what’s going on. That’s a good start. You hope their families are respectful of what is happening in the world today, and you’ve got to be prepared for anything.
“We watch the other leagues and we watch some of the things that players do and are doing and you just shake your head. They’re very fortunate to play in the National Hockey League, and I hope they respect that fact and look after themselves accordingly.”
Kings general manager Rob Blake said his players had cleared protocols except for newly signed forward Andreas Athanasiou, who’s early in an eight-day quarantine. The Kings planned to have 42 players on the ice; they will plunge into three days of intrasquad scrimmages because no exhibitions will be played.
“I firmly believe no player wants to be a result of spreading this quickly or having to shut something down. So they’re being very aware,” Blake said. “But if you do look at the other sports, and particularly football and basketball, it does creep in and you have to be aware of that.”
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If a player falls ill — which won’t be made public — or if a player is held out due to contact tracing, the Kings and Ducks will have reinforcements nearby. The Ducks’ American Hockey League affiliate plays in San Diego and Blake said the Kings’ top farm team will play in El Segundo instead of Ontario (Calif.). The AHL is planning a Feb. 5 start.
Other issues remain to be settled. The junior-level Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League delayed their openers and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League suspended play, so teams can’t return eligible young players to develop there. Teams also must figure out how to stock a taxi squad of four to six players.
Blake said he’s looking into whether players competing at the world junior championships, such as Quinton Byfield (Canada) and Arthur Kaliyev (U.S.), will have to go through quarantine before they join the Kings, or if being in a bubble atmosphere now would allow them to shorten their quarantine. The Ducks also have several standouts at the world junior tournament, including Trevor Zegras (U.S.) and Jamie Drysdale (Canada).
The stakes are high for both local teams. Both missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons and the Kings have won only one playoff game in two postseason series since their 2014 Cup championship. Both have turned to youngsters to lead them, a process the Kings accelerated with a flurry of deals before the last trading deadline.
Blake said coach Todd McLellan addressed players at an introductory meeting on Wednesday and spoke about, “a foundation and a process that was fully engraved last year as the season went on, and now it’s time to reinforce that and build on it.” Translation: The Kings must return to the playoffs.
The Kings and Ducks will play eight times during a season that will be dramatically altered because of the pandemic. Teams will only play division opponents.
“Yeah, that’s what we expect to do,” Blake said. “We talked about it [Wednesday]. This is a results-oriented business. And to get these results, results are wins. You want to keep building on that. You need the foundation in place and then you need the process that the players trust and buy into. Like I said, I think we developed that last year. Now we need to take that another step forward. But that is results. You need wins to get that result.”
The Ducks are looking for similar results with the help of improved special teams and the talent of prospects they’ve slowly accumulated. “For years, for over a decade we were a very competitive organization. Lots of different opportunities to win the Stanley Cup,” Murray said. “So then you’re not picking high all the time and stuff you have to go through a little bit of this, but now it’s time to start to climb. ... The young guys, they’re couple-year pros now. It’s time.”
It’s time to for hockey again, a welcome sight even if witnessed from a distance.
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