The unique nature of the NHL returning to a straight-to-playoffs, 24-team postseason means that the deepest teams will advance. But, after a four-month layoff, condensed training camps and the need for players to dial the intensity to 100 for the qualifying round could increase the injury risk factor.
Teams will also have to carefully monitor players before the July 26 departure to the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton. As of now, players are free from the restrictions of the hub cities. Self-policing will be paramount during the two weeks of training camp to guard against a COVID-19 outbreak.
Even in the case of the NBA’s bubble campus in Orlando, multiple players have already broken bubble rules and have been sent to quarantine. For NHL teams, the Aug. 1 beginning to the qualifying round is still weeks away. On Monday, NHL announced that 30 tests returned positive in Phase 2 – with 13 additional positive tests outside league protocol.
Also on Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins withheld nine players from training camp after possible secondary exposure to coronavirus, and Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews confirmed that he tested positive a month earlier. So, it’s going to take the highest level of caution to ensure virus-free postseason rosters.
Injuries or sickness could suddenly change the fortunes of Stanley Cup hopefuls in an already hard-to-predict, expanded playoff format. Let’s take a deeper look at where the Rangers possess the strongest and weakest roster depth.
The Rangers are well-stocked in net with three capable netminders. Though rookie Igor Shesterkin played splendidly between the pipes to the tune of a .932 save percentage, Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev provide capable options if Shesterkin becomes unavailable.
Offensively, the Blueshirts have plenty of scoring to go around. Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider and Adam Fox all finished above 40 points. Kaapo Kakko and Jacob Trouba also could be interesting X-factors.
If there’s a weak link for the Rangers, it’s a blue line that surrendered 34 shots against per game – the most of all Eastern Conference teams. In an ideal world, the defensive pairings of Lindgren-Fox, Staal-DeAngelo and Smith-Trouba will remain intact.
An injury or health-related absence would force the Blueshirts to rely on the next man up on defense but those names – left-hander Libor Hajek and right-hander Darren Raddysh – lack significant NHL experience.
Hajek has 33 career NHL games under his belt, with five assists in 28 appearances for the Blueshirts this season, but he was sent to minor-league Hartford in December and re-joined the big club for one game in January.
Raddysh. Meanwhile, is yet to make his NHL debut. The 24-year-old recorded 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 62 games this season for Hartford.
If the Rangers wish to go on a deep playoff run, their blue line must be a positive even if their offense clicks and their goaltending is superlative. Any injury on defense will make that task all the more difficult.