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When the NHL suspended play on March 12 to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, many players, fans, and league spokespeople publicly hoped for a short hiatus and a speedy resumption of hockey.
But after nearly three weeks with no signs of improvement, and Mayor Muriel Bowser joining Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan just yesterday in issuing mandatory “stay-at-home” orders extending in Virginia’s cases through June, the situation has only grown murkier, and the NHL season itself appears to be on thin ice.
“We’re in a good spot considering the situation,” Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan told media members via conference call on Monday morning. “We’re in constant communication with [the league and our players].”
MacLellan fielded questions from local and international reporters about the health of the Capitals players and staff, what options remain for salvaging the NHL season, and how he and the rest of the team are dealing with potentially losing the rest of the schedule to the global health crisis.
With the Stanley Cup normally being awarded in early June and the offseason lasting until early October, MacLellan reported that the NHL is seriously considering formats that would allow the season to resume in the summer.
“The league has asked for [teams to provide available] building dates in August,” MacLellan said, indicating that the NHL has already begun examining the nuts-and-bolts of the scheduling logistics that a resumption of play would require. “It’s a possible scenario. Depending on how the virus plays out, depending on how the world handles it, there is the possibility of playing end of June, July, August.”
As for what format a dramatically truncated season might take, the league is considering proposals that both include a ramp-up stretch of regular season games upon return, as well as those that would see teams jump directly into playoff action. MacLellan said he would be open to a plan that salvages the Stanley Cup playoffs at the expense of the regular season, but he fears that without adequate time for players and coaches to get back up to speed, “the quality of the play and the players’ health” might suffer from running headlong into the buzzsaw that is the NHL postseason.
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One thing MacLellan and the other 30 NHL GMs won’t have to worry about is figuring out how to navigate the contracts of their expiring free agents in the face of such scheduling uncertainty; he said that the NHL will likely extend the contracts of upcoming restricted free agents from their current expiration date in June through August. And with such lack of clarity, MacLellan said the Capitals are not even currently worrying about what do with upcoming unrestricted free agents like Braden Holtby, Radko Gudas, and Ilya Kovalchuk.
But with Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin leading the league in goals (48) when play was suspended, and the aging veteran right in the thick of a very public and almost mythical pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time career NHL goals record (894), many fans are lamenting this particularly inconvenient twist of fate. At 34-years-old, Ovechkin has already lost a full season and a half of his career to the 2004 and 2012 NHL lockouts. Reporters asked MacLellan if he, too, regrets Ovechkin missing another opportunity to add to his growing mythos.
“He’s accomplishing things that are pretty incredible, regardless of whether we play another ten, fifteen games or not….I don’t think it makes sense to dwell on that type of thing,” MacLellan replied.
Ovechkin agrees. On a video conference call with reporters last Thursday, the affable Russian reminded well-meaning hockey fans that their priorities should be on something more important right now.
“Of course, you want to score 50 [goals],” Ovechkin said. “But right now, like everyone is saying, the most important thing is be stay safe and to get the thing done. It sucks to not score 50 and to not get another milestone, but you have to think about your family, people, and fans to be more safe.”
The Caps are taking organizational safety very seriously. MacLellan said that he and his staff are checking in with players “every day” for updates on their health, and he reported that no Capitals players to date have exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19.
But when asked whether he finds himself missing hockey in these strange days, MacLellan took a moment before offering some valuable perspective.
“Yeah, I do. It’s amazing how your life just comes to a halt,” he said. “All the things you do day to day, it doesn’t matter anymore. There’s a big picture, there’s a reality going on. All of a sudden you have time. You’re doing stuff around the house, you’re touching base with family more. It’s a change in lifestyle. And a change, probably, in priorities.”
For the Capitals and the NHL, the top priority for now is the safety of fans, players, and staff.
Figuring out how to award that big, silver Cup? That’s a question for the next period.