The NHL has finally announced the two hub cities that will host the league's return, and both will be north of the border in Canada, the birthplace of hockey.
Edmonton and Toronto were the ‘winners,’ now responsible for creating a bubble around team executives, staff and players to protect them and their families from the effects of the Coronavirus, which has shut down the globe for months now. With the United States witnessing a dangerous rise in case count, Las Vegas, once considered a virtual lock to host, was eliminated when hotel staffers started testing positive.
While all this is going on, the players' association is also reviewing, and putting up for a vote, an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, which will buy the league continued labor peace between players and owners. What is not expected to be part of that agreement, however, is what affects the Islanders the most.
I looked at five Islanders to watch in the qualifying round last week for WFAN, and here's another: it is rumored, though hardly confirmed to be perfectly clear, that the league will not allow Russian goaltender Ilya Sorokin to sign a contract and be eligible to play when, or if, the season does finally resume. That puts the proverbial ball directly in Sorokin’s hands. Does he sit around, getting rusty and stiff, until the new league calendar year begins, now likely in December or January? Do the Islanders loan him out, with a return clause? Or does he sign a new, lucrative contract to remain playing in Russia, which would damage the chances of ever seeing him don an Islanders jersey?
Training camp appears to begin on July 13, with two weeks of skating before the team's head to their respective hub cities. Let’s take a look at the other qualifiers around the league and place the spotlight on who to watch. Keep in mind, too, that one of the teams in the qualifying round will end up selecting first in the upcoming NHL entry draft.
Carolina Hurricanes vs New York RangersGiven a choice between playing for the Islanders or Rangers, we all know who Artemi Panarin chose to spend this part of his career with. And he has been a boon to the ‘rebuild’ supposed to occur in Manhattan. Pairing with Mika Zibanajad, Panarin put up MVP-type numbers across the board, collecting 95 points in only 69 games. He simply makes everyone on the ice better.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue JacketsPlaying in their hometown will be a nice perk for the Leafs, who take on the surprising Blue Jackets in a series that can be a lot closer than most people realize. Toronto still hasn’t figured out how to play defense, but in what is expected to be a sloppy, pond hockey-type qualifying round, they could get by simply outscoring their opposition. Zach Hyman had 21 goals in only 51 games during the regular season, and is one of those players who always end up making a huge difference come playoff time.
Nashville Predators vs Arizona CoyotesPekka Rinne has long been a standout for the Predators, but at 37, had a miserable season and actually saw fewer starts than Jusse Saros. In this series, the Preds might turn to him against the offensively starved Coyotes and see where that takes them, saving Saros for the challenges of the next four rounds.
Calgary Flames vs WInnipeg JetsWell, this should be fun, no? Two offensively explosive teams with young superstars battling it out for five games? At the end, we will all be wishing it was a seven-game series. What happened to Johnny Hockey? Gaudreau, who posted 84 and 99 points the past two seasons, slumped to pedestrian totals this year, 18-40-58 in 70 games. The Flames are going to need their dynamo to be at his best to get past a tough Winnipeg threat.