NHL teams getting ready for season-long sprint: 'It's going to be different'

·6 min read

The sprint to the NHL's 56-game finish line started in earnest Sunday.

The seven teams that missed out on the league's summer restart to a 2019-20 season brought to a screeching halt in March by the COVID-19 pandemic opened training camps Thursday ahead of the new campaign.

The other 24 clubs, including six from Canada, that took part in the expanded post-season inside the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles got going with testing and physicals to close out the weekend before hitting the ice Monday.

And with the schedule's Jan. 13 curtain-raisers fast-approaching — plus no exhibition schedule — time is precious and the runway short.

"It's going to be different," Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said on a video conference call with reporters Sunday. "We've got to learn on the fly, we've got to learn quick. It's going to be different for everybody. It's the times we live in."

"It's going to be a little tricky," Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin added. "But we're in the same boat as every other team."

Because of border restrictions related to non-essential travel, the NHL has rejigged its divisions for the shortened 2020-21 season, including a seven-team Canadian circuit that should present plenty of mouth-watering matchups.

"I remember the last 48-game season (in 2012-13) when you woke up one day and you had 15 games left," Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said. "It just goes by. You play every night."

That one-time-only North Division will begin in empty arenas — a handful of U.S. franchises, meanwhile, have indicated they will have some fans in attendance from the start — but that's unlikely to turn the temperature down with teams often playing the same opponent two and three times in quick succession, and up to 10 occasions total over 116 days of action.

"I'm looking forward to it," McDavid said. "An all-Canadian division's exciting. It's never happened before. You look at some of the rivalries, the matchups, it can make for a pretty exciting division.

"Just about anyone can win the division, but with that being said, three teams aren't going to make the playoffs."

While the NHL has said it believes it has an agreement on health and safety protocols to play games in Canada, the B.C. and Alberta governments are the only provinces with teams to publicly announce a thumbs up for the puck to drop.

The Ottawa Senators, who were the only Canadian club not included in the NHL's summer bubbles, have already been on the ice, but the other six situated north of the border are about to get their first looks at a number of new faces.

And there won't be any easing into things.

"In years past when you've had a 21-day camp ... you sort of build up and build your way through camp until right to the end," Calgary captain Mark Giordano said. "We know that starting (Monday) that on-ice session, the attention to detail has to be really bang on.

"You have to force yourself as a professional to make sure that every little play and practice, every little pass means something, and you're sharp and you're crisp."

Among the biggest moves made by Canada's NHL teams this off-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs added Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds up front to go along with T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian on defence, while the Canadiens acquired forwards Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry, and also brought in blue-liner Joel Edmundson and backup goalie Jake Allen.

"Every time you start a new season, you're always excited," Bergevin said. "I like what we've done, (but) you can put anything you want on paper. It doesn't matter until you start playing games."

Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, whose team sits as the betting favourite to win the North, said his team's focus during camp will be on its details following a string of post-season failures, including during the summer qualifying round.

"Going back to (the 2016-17 season) all the way through last year, we've had stretches that have hindered our ability to position ourselves as strongly as possible going into the playoffs," Dubas said. "What we're focused on right now on Day 1 of camp is building the foundation that's going to serve us in the regular season.

"If we don't do that, then we're not going to be in a position to have the success that we all would like."

The rebuilding Senators' new faces include forwards Alex Galchenyuk, Evgenii Dadonov and Austin Watson, along with defenceman Erik Gudbranson and goalie Matt Murray. Fans in the nation's capital are also excited to see what Tim Stuetzle — the No. 3 pick at the 2020 draft — can bring after his impressive offensive performance for Germany at the world junior hockey championship.

The Winnipeg Jets brought centre Paul Stastny, an integral part of their run to the 2018 Western Conference final, back into the fold, but questions remain regarding the future of sniper Patrik Laine, whose agent has reportedly said a trade would be best for all parties, and the status of restricted free agent forward Jack Roslovic.

Calgary added goalie Jacob Markstrom and defenceman Chris Tanev in free agency from the Vancouver Canucks, while Edmonton's biggest moves were the signings of defenceman Tyson Barrie and centre Kyle Turris, and the return of winger and 2016 fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi from Europe.

"Based on what I've gone through before in a lockout-shortened schedule, the games are going to come fast and furious," Flames head coach Geoff Ward said. "Rest is going to be so critical. Depth is really, really necessary."

McDavid said it's no secret what Edmonton will key on after a promising 2019-20 regular season was soured by a disappointing showing in the bubble.

"I don't think we have a problem scoring goals," he said. "It's keeping the puck out of our net. Lots has been made about that. No one's hiding their head in the sand here. Everyone understands where we're at."

The Vancouver Canucks, meanwhile, added Braden Holtby to replace Markstrom, and Nate Schmidt on the back end after their young core took a big step last season.

"It's going to be an exciting year," GM Jim Benning said. "Games are going to be intense ... they're going to be playoff-style.

"It's going to be a sprint."

One that, after a long wait and plenty of uncertainty, is right around the corner.

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver and Donna Spencer in Calgary.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press