SUNRISE, Fla. – It's been a long few months without sports.
When COVID-19 began spreading like wildfire, the majority of the world hunkered down and waited as officials scrambled to manage the outbreak.
Now, as countries begin to ease restrictions, professional sports leagues are coming out of the darkness and shaking off the rust.
Here in North America, wheels are slowly being put into motion as the National Hockey League has started a process that it hopes will end with the resumption of the 2019-20 season.
The NHL has laid out its 24-team postseason plan, which includes the Florida Panthers as the tenth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The league also released information on moving into Phase 2 of its Return to Play Plan, which it hopes to do in early June.
According to the league, Phase 2 will permit teams to open up their facilities for small groups (the league has specified no more than six players) to hold voluntary training, both on and off the ice.
Any on-ice sessions would be non-contact.
A limited number of staff would be permitted into the facility, but no coaches can be on the ice with players.
For those wondering, Phase 3 would be an official training camp and Phase 4 is returning to play.
Should that happen, Florida and 15 other teams will compete in a qualifying round; a best-of-five series that will decide the quarterfinal matchups of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Waiting to face the winners of the qualifying round will be the top four teams in each conference. Those teams, which receive a bye into the quarterfinals, will play in a round-robin to determine their seeding in the top four.
Based on percentage points, the Panthers are the tenth-place team in the Eastern Conference, which means they'll face the seventh place New York Islanders in the qualifying round.
Following months of waiting for an unknown end to the league's precautionary pause, blankly staring at NHL Network programming night after night, this is a lot of information for hockey fans to take in.
In hopes of helping process some of this data and explain what it all means, the Florida Panthers and General Manager Dale Tallon hosted a Zoom call to answer questions from the media and provide additional insight into what lies ahead for the Panthers.
GETTING BACK TO WORK
With 24 teams suddenly resuming their seasons with do-or-die games, Tallon said the players he's spoken to are anxious to get going, now that they have hockey to look forward to.
"Guys are excited because now you see it, it's right in front of you," he said.
Tallon quickly pointed out that Florida needed to win eight or nine of their final 13 games to get into the playoffs, but now, thanks to the extended format, they're in.
For the sixth time in franchise history, the Florida Panthers are postseason bound.
The next demon to exercise is winning a playoff series, something that this team hasn't done since 1996.
“Now you’ve got a chance to win three games and move on, and have a chance to do something special,” Tallon said. “All the guys that I’ve spoken with can’t wait to get on the ice and get back together. They’re excited about this opportunity.”
Tallon went on to explain that timing will be key for the Panthers as they attempt to get back into the swing of things and pick up where they left off with executing Head Coach Joel Quenneville's systems.
"I think by now our players should understand what Coach Q is trying to do," Tallon said. "That's the key. We have to be ready."
He also pointed out that the team has been through a lot of ups and downs this season, from the pre-All-Star Game success to the nightmare month of February, and finally, the COVID pause in March.
Tallon said those are "valuable lessons" for a team to learn during a season.
"I think there are a lot of positive things that we've learned from this situation," he said. "I think they are eager and willing to pay the price to go deep."
EVERYONE GOOD TO GO
A major positive from the extended time off is that it allowed for injured players to recover.
When the break began, Brian Boyle (upper-body) had been out since early February, Dryden Hunt (lower-body) was hurt a few weeks later, and Sergei Bobrovsky missed Florida’s final four games after suffering what was believed to be a lower-body injury during warm-ups of a game on March 1 against Calgary.
Tallon quickly explained that no players would be missing when Florida takes the ice, and that all would be rested for what he called "quite a race to the finish."
"Everyone is ready to go," he said. "We have nobody that will miss any time at all."
Tallon also noted that the healing factor applies to every team in the league, and that there are some who will get players back that were initially believed to be lost for the season.
"It'll be an equal playing field," he said. "No one will have an advantage or edge."
PROSPECTS JOINING PANTHERS?
When play resumes, the NHL has indicated that teams will be allowed to extend their rosters in order to accommodate for injures or coaching decisions.
The normal roster size is 23 players, but that number is expected reach closer to 30 when all is said and done.
Tallon said a few of the youngsters he imagines adding to Florida's stable of players are former first round picks Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, and 23-year-old defenseman Brady Keeper.
"You don't want to bring in too many (players) though, (it could) disrupt the flow of practice and trying to get the team together and being a unit," he said, before adding, "I'm sure we'll have a few of our top prospects there."
When it comes to the final decision of who to add to the roster, Tallon said he and Quenneville would reach that verdict together.
"We've talked about it," Tallon said of Q. "We'll narrow it down to see how many guys he wants there."
2020 NHL DRAFT PLANS
We know the NHL is going to hold a draft sometime this year, but the when and how are still under consideration.
The league presented its plans for the draft lottery, which will include the seven teams that did not qualify for the 24-team playoff, as well as the eight teams that do not survive the qualifying round.
Despite not knowing a draft order, or date, Tallon and his staff have been keeping busy.
While shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic are impacting people across the globe in countless ways, Tallon said it hasn't hindered any of the Panthers draft prep.
"Mostly communicating through this Zoom app has been terrific as far as meetings," he said. "We've conducted a lot of different meetings with our pro staff, and scouts, and amateur scouts getting ready for the draft."
Tallon said he and his staff have interviewed 74 prospects from around the world despite the fact that he's barely left his home since mid-March.
He said they’d be ready for a draft whether it’s held in June, August or after.