CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – If ever there was a unique experience for professional hockey players, it’s participating in a midsummer postseason training camp after spending months off the ice while navigating through a global pandemic.
Fortunately for all involved, the NHL's Phase 3 training camps went off basically without a hitch, with safety measures and testing protocols in place for all 24 teams participating in the postseason.
The league announced Monday that two players tested positive for COVID-19 during all of Phase 3, out of 6,847 tests that were administered to over 800 players. Both positive tests came during the first five days of training camp (July 13-17).
Updated numbers will be released by the league throughout Phase 4, but with no bubbles or specialized safety zones in place up until now, this is about as big of a "W" that the NHL and the Players' Association could've hoped for.
For head coach Joel Quenneville and his Florida Panthers, transitioning into the postseason preparation portion of the league's Return to Play Plan meant returning to the Ice Den in Coral Springs for a 13-day training camp that included up-tempo practices, several intrasquad scrimmages and a couple off days mixed in.
As the days whizzed by in what felt like a blink to all involved, there was no lacking for topics to discuss or quotes to dissect. The players appeared genuinely happy to be back at the rink and even through the virtual press conferences, they were open and thoughtful with the media, who in turn were thrilled to have some fresh content to ingest and turn around.
But with so much suddenly going on, there were bound to be some moments and funny or interesting comments that fell through the proverbial cracks.
Fortunately, many journalists are equipped with a special net that's made specifically to catch such things.
While most of us were self-isolating and adjusting to life during a pandemic, Panthers center Noel Acciari and his wife Kaitlyn were preparing to welcome their first child into the world.
On July 7, Greyson Drew Acciari was born, and his parents have barely slept since.
All kidding aside, becoming a father for the first time is absolutely life-changing, and it was fun watching Noel's face light up as he talked about it.
"It's been an unbelievable experience. Just bringing in this new little guy has been wonderful. My wife did an unbelievable job. Just knowing that you're in charge of this child, it's so special. We're both a bit tired but it's definitely worth it. Looking down at the little guy and going 'Wow, he looks like me' is just an unbelievable feeling."
BOB ‘N ARTEMI
One of the first players to be summoned to the daily Zoom calls was goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Most of the questions had to do with his training during the pause and how he planned to bounce back after a rough first season in Florida.
Before signing off, I asked him about quarantining with his best buddy, New York Rangers sniper and Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin, and if the two ever discussed the possibility of going to battle against one another during the playoffs.
"We don't talk much about hockey when we're together. I think it's an interesting opportunity to face each other. Obviously, on the ice there are no friends. We would compete and fight against each other."
HUBY ON 4PM START TIME
Something jumped out like sore thumb when the NHL released its schedules for the exhibition games and Qualifying Round.
The Panthers-Islanders series was clearly not deemed worthy of any prime viewing slots.
First day of the Qualifiers, Cats and Isles were dropped in the mid-day slot, a 4 p.m. puck drop.
Then the series takes a two-day sabbatical before resuming with back-to-back noon contests taking place on consecutive days.
Nobody's complaining, because hey, it's the playoffs, but it's just more of the same for a franchise that hasn't won a postseason series in nearly a quarter century.
Leave it to Panthers scoring leader Jonathan Huberdeau to find a silver lining. When asked about the 4 o'clock start time for Game 1, Huby was quick to explain how it would end up being a virtuous day for he and his teammates.
"You can sleep in, and after a big win, you can have a nice dinner."
It's so simple, and yet sounds so good.
A big topic among players and coaches alike during Phase 3 circulated around what life would be like living in the NHL's quarantine bubble.
Conversations seemed to gravitate more towards curiosity than concern, with several Panthers players discussing what they're going to bring to help pass the time.
Frank Vatrano - "The biggest talk in the locker room has been trying to figure out what kind of Wi-Fi we're going to have at the hotel. Guys will definitely be bringing their Xbox's and Playstation's and computers. We're going to try and stay at the hotel as best as possible. With the job we have at stake while we're there, we want to keep ourselves in that bubble as best as possible."
Jonathan Huberdeau- "We're going to bring a lot more stuff than when we go on a normal road trip. We plan on being there for two months."
Mike Hoffman - "Heading up there will be a different experience. There's going to be a lot of hanging out with the guys, playing cards, video games, watching movies, whatever it is. It's going to definitely be a good experience, something we'll remember the rest of our lives."
"The Xbox, that'll be coming. There will be some free time. Probably get a couple of guys in the same lobbies and have some fun."
Brian Boyle - "The biggest suitcase I've ever brought on a road trip is one thing I'll be bringing."
"I'm bringing a putter and three golf balls just for the room. There's going to be a lot of down time. I think for us, this is what we're born to do, this is what we want to the most."
Q ON EXHIBITION GAME
Coming up on Wednesday will be the Panthers tune-up game against cross-state rival Tampa Bay.
I was curious how Quenneville would approach the game, as on one hand, you want to make sure your players are as ready for the Qualifying Round as possible, while on the other hand, the last thing anyone wants is someone getting hurt in a meaningless exhibition contest.
“I think the mindset of that game will be ‘let’s play it like it’s a [normal] game.’ I don’t think anybody is going to want to get out there and get injured. They’re going to be playing hard.”
"We find as you're going through training camp, the latter stages everybody plays their roster that they anticipate Opening Night, and that will be our mindset."
FREE AGENCY TALK
Eventually this marathon of a season will be over. While the Panthers are hoping that time comes later rather than sooner, it's going to arrive sometime in the next couple months.
Once the offseason hits, Florida will have some decisions to make as several key players will be hitting the open market.
Those soon-to-be UFA's were asked about their pending free agency, and the answers were pretty much the same.
Mike Hoffman- "I haven't really thought about that too much. I think everyone's mind and thoughts have been on when we're going to return, if we're going to return, what it's going to look like. For myself, it was pretty much like a summer training ritual, go to the gym and do what you have to do get yourself ready for training camp."
Mark Pysyk – "That stuff was all sort of pushed to the back burner now. In talks with my agent, there's been nothing really said. We've just said to take care of what we can take care of (during the postseason). It's awesome here in Florida, I absolutely love it. We've got a job to here so that's definitely where the focus is."
Evgenii Dadonov- "I'm not worried about it at all. I'm going to play and do my job. There's going to be enough time to talk about a new contract (after the season). Right now, I'm just ready to play.
One of the more fun and random traditions in professional sports is the hockey playoff beard.
It's something that players embrace and genuinely look forward to, wearing their varying-colored facial hair as a badge of honor, as the longer it gets, the deeper the playoff run.
I made a point to ask a few of Florida's veteran players what the playoff beard protocol would be.
Brian Boyle said as far as the beards are concerned, a few of the guys asked about when to start one, but there isn’t a team mandate or anything. Guys will do what they want to do.
"After we heard that the vote was ratified, a couple guys asked if we start our playoff beards now," he said. "It's fun to do, it's fun to see.
"Everybody is on their own with that. I sometimes shave, I sometimes don't. I have a job where I don't have to, except for when I played for Lou (Lamoriello). It's interesting to see how that will go."
Like Boyle, Keith Yandle also took the diplomatic approach. "I don't know when guys are going to start doing theirs, I think it's a player-by-player situation. For me, I always have somewhat of a beard so it's probably going to stay like that."
Mark Pysyk will be growing one, but only of Florida gets past the Islanders and into the traditional 16-team bracket. "If we're in the playoffs, I'll be leaving it. [Mine is] not great, but everybody does it."
Sasha Barkov already had a pretty decent beard going when the team left for Toronto, but it's all by design. "My beard doesn't grow that fast, so I had to start a little bit early. Hopefully it keeps growing and we'll see at the end of the playoffs how it is. That is a thing in hockey, you grow a playoff beard, and I really want to do that too."
PLAYING FOR Q
In order to allow teams a similar flexibility to what they would normally have during a traditional, non-pandemic playoff year, the NHL expanded rosters for the postseason.
Not including goaltenders, every club is allowed to carry up to 30 players on their active roster for the entirety of the playoffs.
After four months off, all of Florida's previously injured players are now healed and ready to contribute, so the need to bring in new bodies wasn't as drastic for the Panthers.
A handful of budding prospects were plucked off the roster of the Florida's AHL affiliate in Springfield, some of whom had not yet had the chance to visit the Panthers' home facilities in Coral Springs or meet the NHL coaching staff.
Eetu Luostarinen is one of those guys, acquired at the trade deadline along with Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark and Chase Priskie from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Vincent Trocheck.
For the 21-year-old skating in his first season in North America, playing for a legend like Quenneville is just icing on the cake.
"Of course it's a big deal," said Luostarinen. "What I've seen of him as a coach, I really like him. He's really loose, but strict also. He gives good advice."
Fellow AHL addition Brady Keeper wasn't new to the Q experience, now participating in his second training camp of the season in South Florida, but that doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate learning everything he can from the future Hall of Famer.
"Not that many people get to be coached by him," Keeper said. "It's really special to learn from him. It's really an honor to be here and be around him and the guys, and just keep learning every day as the camp goes along and hopefully, I'll get my shot."
Looking back at the nearly two-week training camp, the player that seemed to really stand out from Quenneville perspective, based on his daily post-practice Zoom calls, was forward Aleksi Saarela.
Acquired all the way back in October in the deal that sent Ian McCoshen to Chicago, Saarela was already on his second call-up with the Panthers when the NHL hit the pause button on the season.
As the young sniper spent more time in South Florida and got better acclimated to Quenneville's style of play, his performance on the ice grew by leaps and bounds.
As camp progressed, Saarela bounced around the lineup but mostly was kept with the players not expected to be on the roster for Game 1 against the Islanders.
That didn’t’ stop him from standing out to the coaching staff, often coming up when Quenneville was discussing what he liked about the day’s work.
Throughout his career, Saarela has had a reputation for having a wicked shot, and he's shown that it's not an exaggeration with some filthy snipes on the ice in Coral Springs.
"He's got a unique asset that you have to love and appreciate," Quenneville said of Saarela's shot.
It's something that the young Finnish forward hopes to put on display in his Panthers sweater sooner rather than later, as he takes a lot of pride in delivering the puck with such accurate force.
It's a deep-rooted skill that he learned from his father, Pasi, a 17-year veteran of Liiga, the Finnish Elite League.
"I've always worked on my shot, since I was like five years old, so it's natural for me," Saarela said. "My dad had a big shot back in the days when he played pro in Finland and I've always wanted to have a harder shot than him. I'm not there yet, but I'm close."
CONNOLLY’S DRIVING FORCE
A big reason why Florida targeted winger Brett Connolly last summer in free agency was for his playoff experience. Connolly was just one season removed from playing a crucial role in the Washington Capitals' march to the Stanley Cup in 2018.
Asked about the idea of chasing the dream a second time, Connolly put the focus on his teammates, none of whom have hoisted the Stanley Cup.
"I want to see other guys win. I think unselfishly I'd love to be a part of that and see my teammates win for the first time. Obviously, I'm going to do my part and I have to be my best here. If we're going to do that, everyone is going to have to play their best. For me, I'm ready to do that and I'm excited about that. It's a big reason of why they brought me in here. I know what's coming, I'm prepared for it.
“I would just love more than anything to, not only for me, but to see my teammates and the organization win the Stanley Cup. I would love to be a part of that and help out as much as I can to see my teammates win here, who I’ve loved to be around all year. It’s been a great first year and I’ve had a lot of fun. I would love to be a part of seeing these guys lift a Cup. I’m all in.”