Monday, April 27, 2020

Six realities that fans will have to get their heads around if the NHL returns

It sounds like hockey fans might get to see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season after all.

It’s no sure thing, and the plans being floated seem to change almost daily. But over the last few weeks, it feels like the consensus has shifted from doubt that won’t see any hockey until at least the fall to something more optimistic. Maybe we resume the regular season, or maybe it’s an expanded playoff tournament, or maybe we have to settle for less than that. But it increasingly sounds like the hockey world is expecting that we’ll get … something.

We’ll see. There are still countless details to work out, and it would only take a day or two of bad news from the front lines of the pandemic to render all of this moot. But for now, let’s assume that the optimists are right. Let’s imagine that the NHL is indeed coming back at some point this summer. That’s great news, right? Hockey fans should be thrilled.

Well, yeah. For the most part. But at the risk of being a downer, we may need to pump the brakes just a bit. If the NHL does return, I think there are a few things that hockey fans should start thinking about now. None of these are meant to be read as reasons why the league shouldn’t return, or why fans shouldn’t hope that it does. But if we’re going to wade into uncharted territory, there are a few things we should probably start wrapping our heads around first.

At least early on, the quality of play might not be great

Have you ever watched the first few games of the exhibition schedule in September, as everyone shakes off the rust after a few months off? No, you have not, because those games are terrible and you have better things to do.

And that’s fine because none of those games matter. In a resumed NHL, they’ll matter a lot. So what will the quality of play look like?

It’s an open question, but at least we have some evidence that it won’t be great. Remember, this is the same league that has an annual crisis over teams returning from bye weeks needing a few games to get back up to speed. That’s after a week off. Now, we’ve got players who haven’t played since early March, and who may not have had access to the workout routines they’re used to. They’re going to have a few weeks of practice and then jump right back into the regular season, or even directly into the playoffs, and it’s going to be business as usual?

It won’t be. But here’s the thing: That might not be a negative. Bad hockey is often fun hockey. Every coach’s idea of a perfectly played game involves his team winning 1-0 while all the fans fall asleep. But when everyone is making mistakes, things can get wild. And wild is fun.

Maybe in a perfect world, the NHL comes back with forgotten defensive systems, end-to-end action and a bunch of sloppy but exhilarating 6-5 finals. Most of us could get on board with that, especially if the extended layoff means everyone is healthy and the risk of new injuries isn’t any higher.

Unfortunately, there’s a related problem that looms larger …

Intensity is going to be an issue

Justin Bourne hit on this a few days ago, and he’s absolutely right. Are NHL players going to be motivated to go all out for the rest of the season? Some of them will be, sure. But not everyone, and it’s going to show.

Let’s start with the teams that have nothing to play for. We’re still being told that the NHL wants to finish the regular season, and that would mean teams like the Kings and Red Wings being pulled away from their families and communities so that they can play out the string on last-place seasons. The Senators have had multiple players test positive. Do they even want to play?

They might since the alternative could be losing a big chunk of their paychecks. But are they going to leave it all on the ice? Doubtful. It’s not hard to imagine that late-season Devils/Sabres game having all the intensity of an All-Star Game, only without the stars.

The same issue will be in play even if common sense prevails and we skip straight ahead to the playoffs. Some players will have spent their time off obsessing about the chance to get back on the ice and chase a Cup. Many others will have decades of hyper-competitive instincts kick in as soon as they step on the ice. That’s great. But others may have been dealing with difficult situations involving family and friends. Some might have been sick. Some may be struggling. Some of them just won’t want to be there.

Mix in the lack of fans to fire up the home side, and it wouldn’t shock me to see a near-total absence of the sort of big hits and bad blood that so often define the playoffs. Fighting might disappear completely. We could see highs and lows, where some games have all the intensity we’re used to and others feel like they don’t need to be happening. Sometimes it might be both in the same game.

It’s going to be weird. Be ready.

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