So much of the talk around the NHL’s bubble and return to play has focused on the players. They’re in the spotlight. Their health is on the line.
Right behind them, quite literally, are the NHL’s coaches. This postseason is unlike anything they’ll ever do. They have to try to inject energy during games without 18,000 screaming fans. They have to scream words of encouragement and argue calls in empty rinks in which every word will be heard — by hot microphones and referees who might get hot when they hear what’s being said.
Their rosters look different. Their players are in different levels of physical and mental shape. They’re leaving behind their families for months at a time. It’s a lot.
“The sacrifice for two months is huge, but that’s why you have the big party at the end,” one Stanley Cup-winning coach said.
To get a sense of their mentality, concerns and analysis, and mostly to have a little fun, we decided to anonymously poll a group of head and assistant coaches with nine questions. In all, we had 20 responses. At least 19 of them seemed to take it seriously.
Let’s dive in.
1. Which team benefits the most from the time off?
The answers to this question tended to center around teams getting players back from injuries, especially those with serious injuries that might have impacted a normal postseason.
“Lots of teams will have guys who will be fully healthy now,” one coach said.
The Penguins ran away with this, in part, because of the return of Jake Guentzel.
“This might be the most complete roster they’ve been able to put on the ice,” one Eastern Conference coach said.
Columbus was another popular answer. Not only is Seth Jones healthy, but the extended time off has put Josh Anderson’s name back in play as someone who could return to action when it was widely assumed he was gone until next season.
“They haven’t had a whole team almost the whole year,” said a coach. “That’s why Torts (John Tortorella) should be coach of the year.”
Another coach instead considered style of play. That led him to choose Toronto as a team that benefited from the time off.
“In general, the high-skilled teams are going to have the most success early,” one head coach said. “It’ll be the least amount of structure early. … I would give a nod to Toronto. I think Toronto benefits just because I think early in seasons, lots of times, it looks like Shinny hockey. The more it looks like Shinny hockey, the more advantage goes to the high-skilled teams.”
2. Which team was hurt the most from the time off?
This one was tougher because we were testing the memory of coaches. Who was doing well before the pause? Which team was starting to get into playoff mode? A couple of coaches needed a minute to do some research to refresh their memories. March seems like a long time ago to everybody.
“Philly was on fire. They have some serious mojo,” said an Eastern Conference assistant. “Alain (Vigneault) is a hell of a coach, in my opinion, and they are definitely an AV team.”
“I feel like it really hurt St. Louis. I don’t know if that’s enough to derail them,” another Eastern Conference coach said. “When this pause happened, they were starting to steamroll. It looked like they were getting to their playoff game. They were starting to control games. The machine was starting to run on all cylinders. I would also put Minnesota in that category.”
One Eastern Conference head coach didn’t hesitate in naming Boston.
“Without even blinking,” he said. “They should be the No. 1 seed overall, and now they might be the fourth seed. That’s the only time I thought there was an injustice. Boston was clearly the No. 1 team.”
Another vote for Boston: “For some reason, I don’t know if it’s true or not, I feel like it’s Boston. They’re not any younger. … Their best players minus (Torey) Krug are older guys, and I don’t know if (after) not only an extended break but a time where you … spend very little time on hockey, (you) can hit the ground running.”
But the most unique theory came from a Western Conference coach who wondered if the teams hurt the most were those based in Canada. His theory was that players on the Canadian teams tended to leave town more than others and the strict rules for reentry might have prevented them from assembling as early as other teams that had players in town together during the pause.
“It would have to be one of the Canadian teams,” he said. “Like Winnipeg. Nobody stayed in town for the pause. Southern teams and warm-weather teams — a lot of guys stayed in town. Winnipeg, Calgary, Montreal — in those places guys didn’t stay, and then it was tough to come back because of the quarantine.”
3. Which goalie is most likely to come out of nowhere and lead his team on a run?
It seems like there’s one of these every postseason. A guy gets hot and it’s not always the obvious candidate. Ben Bishop nearly carried the Stars on his own last spring. Marc-Andre Fleury was unreal in 2018 — Pekka Rinne the year before.
So we’re trying to get out in front of it now, and the coaches really like Robin Lehner to be that guy. He’s on a really good team and also playing for a contract. There’s a lot of motivation there.
“Their team (Vegas) was playing really well since the coaching change,” said an assistant coach. “They’re a good team. I don’t know what’s going on with Marc-Andre (Fleury).”
Another explanation from a Lehner supporter: “(Vegas) had some of the best five-on-five underlying numbers in the league and were plagued by some of the worst underlying goalie numbers in the league.”
Lehner was the popular pick, but there were some interesting ones. Like one coach suggesting Braden Holtby might not be the answer for the Capitals.
“If Holtby struggles in the round-robin, I see (Ilya) Samsonov taking off,” he said before news of Samsonov’s injury surfaced.
Another inexperienced goalie, 26-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, caught the attention of this coach.
“Who knows who is starting for Columbus? But Elvis had five shutouts in eight games last year,” he said. “Five shutouts!”
Finally, one coach just had a gut feeling: “He might not even start, but I’m going to say Mike Smith in Edmonton. Just a gut (feeling). I could be dead wrong. I think that team can go on a run and he’s that highly competitive guy who could just get hot.”
4. Which star player has the ability to carry his team to a Stanley Cup?
Hockey is the ultimate team game. But the thought here is that every star player is rested. They’re not coming off the grind of the regular season. There’s an opportunity for one of the best players in the world to strap his team to his back and will his way to a championship.
More often than not, Nathan MacKinnon was the guy mentioned as the best candidate.
“This could be MacKinnon’s moment,” one voter said.
“MacKinnon can take over a game by himself,” said another.
“Nathan MacKinnon is the obvious answer,” a Western Conference head coach said. “I thought he almost did that last year in the playoffs for them.”
“He doesn’t get enough attention,” said a coach in the East. “He’s as dynamic as any of the other guys who get all the accolades.”
Of course, Sidney Crosby had his supporters.
“Crosby until somebody tells me differently,” said a head coach. “(Connor) McDavid is a better hockey player today; he’s not a better winner yet. Until somebody proves it different, I’ll go Crosby.”
“Have to look at Crosby,” another Crosby voter said. “No way he was vacationing during the pause. He is always working, and his experience and his drive will be tough to stop.”
If you’re wondering why McDavid didn’t receive more support, the consensus seemed to be that his team wasn’t strong enough even for a player of his caliber to guide it all the way.
“This rules out McDavid because I don’t see Edmonton winning a Cup,” said a coach.
5. Which player returning from injury will make the biggest impact?
Injuries and players “unfit to play” are going to go a long way in deciding how this tournament plays out, but the time off also allowed some key players to heal.
Columbus defenseman Seth Jones had surgery to heal a fractured ankle on Feb. 11. His return to health was something coaches saw as most impactful. Coaches love Jones. And rightfully so.
“It’s just the impact he has on that team,” one coach said. “He’s the most impactful.”
“Columbus plays tight and defends well,” said another Jones voter. “He is part of that but, more importantly, a big part of their offense.”
“Seth Jones can play over half a game,” said a third.
Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko had surgery on his shoulder on Oct. 29, and St. Louis now gets his game-breaking ability back in the lineup.
“It seems like there’s life in a game when he’s on the ice,” said an Eastern Conference coach. “His own teammates feed off it. His guys on his team respond to him, and you can see that.”
Penguins forward Jake Guentzel had surgery on his shoulder at the end of December and was leading the Penguins in goals (20) when he went down. His name came up often, even if coaches didn’t ultimately pick him in this category.
“He can play a fast game,” one coach said. “He’s shown the ability to contribute. He was going to be a big piece of what they would be missing.”
“Because Guentzel is so good in the playoffs, he could be a major factor,” said another coach in highlighting a player who has 24 goals in 41 career playoff games.
Colorado is a popular pick to make a run, and Mikko Rantanen’s health is a big reason for that.
“Rantanen really completes that line, so if he’s healthy, look out,” said a coach. “Rantanen is so much bigger than the second-line right winger of Colorado.”
6. If you could have picked your ideal hub city, where would it be?
For the record, we like the NHL’s plan. It’s smart to put this thing in Canada. The coaches seem to feel the same way. That said, it’s fun to see where else they’d like to hang out right now for two months.
First, our coach who may or may not have taken this seriously.
“Fairbanks, Alaska,” he said. “It is light 24 hours a day this time of year.”
Then, because he answered via text, he added a bunch of emoji, including a golf one, badminton (I think?), soccer and basketball.
Vegas got a lot of votes. Coaches like Vegas.
“I’m saying Vegas, but not for the glitz and glamor of Vegas. Just being able to be in a hub city and be close and have everything in close proximity,” an Eastern Conference coach said. “You could be in your hotel and have all the things you need nearby.”
“Vegas. No-brainer,” said another.
The time of year got a few coaches thinking about British Columbia and making the case for Vancouver and nearby rinks.
“I love the mountains, the ocean, the temperate weather,” an assistant coach said.
One head coach of a playoff team went a step further and picked a spot outside an NHL city. “This time of year? One, it would have to be in Canada,” he said, talking through his thought process. “I think that’s the right call. I think it’s the best weather this time of year in Canada in the interior of British Columbia. Kelowna.”
7. Which coach is most likely to get in trouble for something he says to a ref because there’s no crowd to drown him out?
Columbus coach John Tortorella dominated here, for obvious reasons. Tortorella doesn’t need an empty rink to get in hot water.
“His emotions are part of who he is and why he is great,” explained one coach.
And another: “Torts, if he gets mad, if he believes in a cause, he will fight for that cause even if everybody can hear him.”
But the more fun answers came from those who went off the board.
“Has there been more than one answer to this one?” joked one coach, referencing Tortorella. “I’m not going to say the obvious one. I’m going to say (Joel Quenneville). Q never says anything on camera that’s crazy. Not so true on the bench.”
Quenneville was a popular sleeper pick here.
“He’s a fiery man,” one Quenneville voter said. “He has a mouth on him like a trucker. It’s bad. Joel Quenneville, beware.”
A few other answers:
“Claude Julien. He’s sneaky fiery. I’ll go with him.”
“Mike Sullivan. He just speaks. He’d be the first to say, ‘Sorry, buddy, it slipped out.’”
“(Dave Tippett) gets very argumentative. He’ll beat his point to death.”
8. What’s your biggest worry playing in the bubble for so long?
While the health of everybody participating is the main concern, coaches will be fixated on getting the most out of their players in a unique environment. No fans. No family to start out. Nobody knows exactly how this will go. And the players lacking intensity without screaming fans in the building is a real concern.
“Having to manufacture your own emotion and intensity and energy. That’s a real part of a playoff series,” said one coach. “It’s a real difference-maker in winning and losing in the playoffs. The teams that manage that the best are going to have a real edge You’re going to have to manufacture it. It’s something the building, situation and fans did for you. You never had to focus on it. Now, it’s going to be how much energy — how good are you at (creating) that? To me, that’s going to be a real challenge.”
“There’s going to be no one in the stands. These games are going to be like training camp games,” said another coach. “It’s going to mean something; they’re going to be trying and all that, but there’s not going to be the same level of energy in the building.”
One more thought from a head coach who picked the lack of fans: “It’s an odd feeling to play a hockey game and you hear things rattle in the distance and there’s no noise in the building. Even when there are 8,000 people in a 20,000-seat arena, you hear things clanking around. There’s no energy in the building. By the time you get into the playoffs, some of the energy is going to be worn off and it’s still going to be a clanky old building. It’s going to be odd.”
Another coach disagreed. He felt that the competitive side of the players will emerge once the games get going.
“It might be a boring first period or half, but it won’t be boring the whole game,” he said. “These guys play in world championships with 20 percent capacity with no atmosphere. They’ve done this their whole life. They’ve played big games with nobody in the building. It’s never stopped them.”
Another popular answer was the concern over players going stir-crazy in the bubble as their playoff run extends. We’ve seen players pack video games, board games and a surprising amount of acoustic guitars. That might get them through two weeks.
“That’s going to be everyone’s biggest problem,” one coach said. “I’ve done world championships. They’re a month. You have free rein to go anywhere in the city and guys get stir-crazy.”
If you get stir-crazy in Prague or Paris, a hotel in Edmonton could be problematic.
“The NHL has done a great job of creating parameters to make sure this thing works, but, man, that’s a long time doing nothing,” another coach said.
In the “other” category, one coach said it’s going to be a record amount of time away from family and that could be an issue for players in the same boat.
“That’s going to be the hardest,” he explained. “The longer you go, the harder it’s going to get. I know by the conference final, you get some family. It’s still a long time.”
9. Are you concerned about your own health and exposure to COVID-19?
Coaches, just because of their age, are potentially more at risk when it comes to catching COVID-19. But even the ones who are concerned seem comfortable with the NHL’s game plan going in.
“You’re concerned, but I also feel we’re fortunate in that we’re going to be surrounded with the best health care you could possibly have, the most testing to catch it early,” said a Western Conference coach. “You’re concerned, but we have nothing to complain about.”
“I know it can be very bad,” said a coach in weighing the risks. “But the bubble may be the safest place to be.”
“I respect the virus enough to say, yes, there’s a level of concern,” another coach said.
One coach suspects COVID-19 cases were even more widespread than anyone realized before the league shut down.
“My personal opinion is there were more people in the NHL who had it than we think,” he said. “When our teams go through the flu, lots of people get it. I think we weren’t immune to having it go through a couple teams. That’s my feeling.”