The Phase 3 training camps open across the NHL on Monday, and we will finally have hockey news. Real, hockey news. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been at nearly full capacity for a couple of weeks as players raced back to Pittsburgh for the start of Phase 2 voluntary workouts. Last week, head coach Mike Sullivan said by Monday, all of the players who are going to be available will be available, so we don’t expect any surprises.
There are few things to watch as the Penguins reset camp.
The Phase 3 training camps are not isolated, at least in the mandatory way which the NHL attempted to create safe spaces with the bubble cities, Toronto and Edmonton. And therein lies perhaps the greatest danger.
3 Things to Watch Penguins Phase 3 Camp
1. Virus outbreaks
The NHL and NHLPA chose not to isolate players participating in Phase 3 training camps. If something goes wrong and the NHL return is scratched, the self-quarantined training camps are the weak spot in the plan. Players are living at home and commuting to work, much like you and me.
Sunday, three Montreal Canadiens players tested positive for COVID-19. Likely because Montreal had a lot of late-arriving players, who may have been undergoing their first-round testing, but that is only speculation. There could have also been an issue in which one player made a mistake. Or his family made a mistake. And that’s one thing to watch.
“They’re probably sick of hearing about (ways to stay safe),” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford conceded.
The NHL and NHLPA medical advisors have extraordinarily detailed and constant. The Phase 2 return to play guide advised players to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing their hands. The latest Phase 3/4 protocols and bubble city guidelines suggest players push elevator buttons with their knuckles.
Yes, things have been that detailed, and the players’ habits have been subjected to that level of scrutiny.
The players have to be exceedingly careful. The Penguins practice facility is located in Butler County, which has not had the same spike, but many Allegheny County residents are visiting the outlying areas as businesses close or reduce operations, again.
Only 29 positive tests among nearly 800 players is a pretty good ratio. Even better, there have been no reports of severe effects or anyone who had more than a low-grade fever.
2. Veterans Up to Speed
While the Penguins don’t have any of the top players under 25, they do have a plethora of younger legs. Those younger legs should be up to full speed more quickly than the Penguins veterans. How long will it take 30-somethings Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist, Jack Johnson, and Patrick Marleau to reach their optimum temperature?
Knowing the Penguins veteran core, they may already be at full speed, but the game timing and conditioning may take a few moments to return. Those of us on the wrong side of Father Time will attest that it gets more difficult, no matter how hard you work.
3. Goalies, Goalies
The Pittsburgh Penguins goalies have been facing rubber from NHL shooters for a few weeks, but that is hardly game conditions. One of the great unknowns of the return to play is goaltending. After four months away from the rink and nearly six months away from game action, goalies have a unique challenge. Did bad habits sneak up on Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry? How will the goalies handle the mental conditioning?
Just as a goalie could go cold, the reset could also mean a goalie gets hot.
Seeing how the goalies respond to the game simulations in camp will be an important point for coaches. To reiterate, the Penguins have scheduled Matt Murray to be the starting goalie for the Qualifying Round and beyond.
When PHN spoke with coaching legend Scotty Bowman during the pandemic, he praised Mike Sullivan and Sullivan’s ability to feel when a player was at the top or bottom of his game.
The Murray vs. Jarry drama could unfold once more if Sullivan feels Murray isn’t on top of his game. And if either player responds very well or poorly, it could impact the Penguins coming decision on which goalie to sign.
There are hundreds of little things the coaches will pick up in the next 13 days and at least a week of Qualifying Round games beyond that. Some could have a lasting impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins as they make hard decisions after the season.
*Reminder: The Penguins camp and facility is closed to the public.