SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis won’t be in attendance this weekend when the NHL becomes the latest sports league to roll the dice by playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Strict protocols in Canadian “bubble” cities Edmonton and Toronto have limited quarantined arena access to the 24 teams participating in what will pass for this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. That means Francis and his staff, like millions of hockey fans, will be watching on television these next two months as they scout games ahead of the Kraken’s 2021-22 season debut.
How valuable their information-gathering will be is questionable. It’s been 4½ months between meaningful NHL games, and no fans will attend these makeshift playoff contests to help energize things.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Francis said. “Normally, guys start training camp and they kind of build up to the playoffs. They roll right into the playoffs, they’re in peak performance and peak conditioning and ready to go.
“So, I’m curious to see how the hockey is going to be out of the gate because they haven’t played in four months. It’s going to take them a while to get used to the flow of the game again.”
Francis has assigned his scouts — including onetime NHL instigator Ulf Samuelsson, rehired after a brief coaching stint in Sweden — one team apiece to follow from each of the Eastern and Western conferences as round-robin seeding games and a best-of-five “qualifier round” begin Saturday.
Back alongside Samuelsson in the pro scouting ranks are mainstays Cammi Granato, Stu Barnes, Dave Hunter and John Goodwin and some new additions.
The team announced Thursday that David Baseggio — a former Anaheim Ducks assistant to the GM — has been hired as director of pro scouting, while former New York Islanders veteran Lorne Henning and William White — son of Dallas Stars assistant GM Scott White — have been added as pro scouts. Andrew Allen, onetime Buffalo Sabres goalie coach, will be scouting that position exclusively.
The top four conference teams — Boston, Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and defending Cup champion St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West — will play round-robin games to determine seeding. They’ll face winners from the best-of-five qualifying round between teams seeded 5 through 12 in each conference.
The Eastern Conference qualifying-round matchups:
n Pittsburgh (5) vs. Montreal (12)
n Carolina (6) vs. New York Rangers (11)
n New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida Panthers (10)
n Toronto (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)
The Western Conference qualifying-round matchups:
n Edmonton (5) vs. Chicago (12)
n Nashville (6) vs. Arizona (11)
n Vancouver (7) vs. Minnesota (10)
n Calgary (8) vs. Winnipeg (9)
“It’s a lot of potential hockey to cover,” said Francis, who, with assistant GM Ricky Olczyk, will also scout games. “But it’s good for us. Because with the season postponed in March, we missed the end of that and then we missed what would have been the playoffs. So, here we get to pick up some more games and coverage.”
But whether these “asterisk” playoffs are worth the possibly lethal risk in the name of TV-rights money remains to be seen. There will be off-ice apprehension for players knowing Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball already canceled some games due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Unlike baseball or soccer, hockey is played indoors with players exerting all-out for 45-second shifts and often winding up nose-to-nose.
Hockey is also the only sport to lose a championship to a pandemic when the Seattle Metropolitans and Montreal Canadiens aborted their 1919 final in our city after players and coaches contracted Spanish Influenza.
Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall succumbed to the illness days later. Montreal coach George Kennedy never fully recovered and died in 1921, while Metropolitans coach Pete Muldoon died of a heart attack a decade later at age 41 — his organs suspected of being weakened by his flu bout.
So, the NHL knows there’s little margin for error. That’s why it isn’t playing in the U.S.
“It’s not a coincidence that the hub cities are Toronto and Edmonton,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters last Friday. “Because of our focus on health and safety, and because of where COVID-19 is and isn’t.”
But even hockey-mad Canadians are split over hosting games.
Vancouver’s hub-city bid ended when British Columbia’s government deemed the league’s testing protocols too lenient. A nationwide poll in Canada released last month by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found only 24 percent of respondents felt it very important to host playoff games, while 47 percent said it wasn’t important.
The Canadian government allowed hockey — while forcing the Toronto Blue Jays to play MLB games outside the country — only because the bubble format prevents NHL players from continuously crossing the border.
If you can somehow overlook COVID-19 despite empty arenas and quarantined players, you’ll find some Seattle-area narratives. Stanwood product T.J. Oshie seeks his second Cup with the Washington Capitals while Spokane natives Tyler Johnson, Kailer Yamamoto and Derek Ryan vie for their first with Tampa Bay, Edmonton and Calgary, respectively.
Seattle Thunderbirds alums Mathew Barzal and Shea Theodore are contending with the New York Islanders and Vegas, while Ethan Bear is in Edmonton under head coach and former NHL Seattle adviser Dave Tippett. Ex-T-Bird Nate Thompson is in Philadelphia, alongside onetime Everett Silvertips star goalie Carter Hart.
Storylines aside, no one really knows whether this “bubble” can remain COVID-proof through qualifiers, then four best-of-seven series — including a late-September Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton.
“We still have a way to go to feel any sort of gratification,” Bettman said. “If there’s any point I’m going to feel substantial emotion, it’ll be a sense of relief when I get to present the Stanley Cup.”
And the Kraken will scribble down as much as it can from it ahead of next year’s expansion draft.
“For us, it’s about looks on players,” Francis said. “So, we’re looking at the different teams and analyzing who we think may be available.”
Still, the best looks might come later this year, when the league plans a 2020-21 regular season with players rounding into form within a more normalized schedule.
Then again, whether that season even launches depends greatly on COVID-19. And on these playoffs ending better than the last time a Stanley Cup was contested during a pandemic.