Monday was the first time in 123 days that the Washington Capitals practiced together in large groups at MedStar Capitals Iceplex because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That means, for example, it had been 123 days since coach Todd Reirden was allowed in-person access to his players under the NHL’s rules and protocols. It was the first time players had a formal, organized practice in that span of more than four months.
The start of Phase 3 of the NHL’s return meant an abbreviated training camp period could begin, marking some progress for the sport’s attempt to return from its pause enforced by the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s plenty of reason to question whether hockey and other major sports in North America will be able to pull this comeback off. But with regards to how comfortable players will be with protocols and how much adjustment will be required, it was revealing how quickly players got back into their old routines once they hit that sheet of ice Monday.
“On the ice is normal,” Alex Ovechkin said. “On the ice is same rules (as) what we have before.”
“When we got on the ice, it was back to playing hockey,” Reirden added.
The Capitals will continue their training camp Tuesday and Wednesday, with a planned day off on Thursday. A limited number of reporters were granted access to the rink, but all press conferences were conducted over Zoom, an increasingly common solution in the pandemic age.
Here’s what else was apparent Monday, and what to monitor in the days to come.
NHL rule about virus updates will be frustrating
Three Capitals players on the return-to-play roster didn’t participate in Monday’s practice: defensemen Michal Kempny and Alex Alexeyev and goaltender Ilya Samsonov. From social media posts, it’s clear that at least Samsonov and Kempny have returned to the District from their home countries.
But the team could not give any details of why they were absent. Other teams around the league had to call their absent players “unfit to play.”
That’s because the NHL will not allow teams to divulge whether players are sick or injured the rest of this year, citing medical privacy.
The policy diverges from other leagues such as Major League Baseball and the NBA, which have left it up to the teams and players how much they want to say when players test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
As this chugs along, though, it’s important for fans and media not to speculate about who might have COVID-19. There is no evidence that Kempny, Alexeyev or Samsonov were absent Monday because they were sick — only that they were absent.
Impact of hub city ‘bubble’ a wild card
Though Ovechkin, Reirden and company were comfortable and perhaps relieved to get back on the ice, no one is quite sure how they’ll feel when they get to Toronto, the Eastern Conference’s hub city.
The Capitals will travel to Toronto July 26 after less than two weeks’ worth of training camp. Tom Wilson, the team’s representative on the NHLPA executive board, said concrete details have yet to be shared with players besides hotel accommodations, but he thought it might end up feeling like “one big field trip.”
“I think guys usually have their routine and superstitions,” Wilson said. “They have everything that they do on a typical game day and I think anything typical has been kind of thrown out the window for the next few months. So you’re going to have to adjust, you’re going to have to adapt. At the end of the day, we’ll be with 20 of our best buddies and we’ll be going through it together.”
Nicklas Backstrom likened the bubble configuration to an Olympic village, or the living arrangements for players in the World Cup of Hockey.
“I think the bubble, it’s going to be a good setup for us there in Toronto,” Backstrom said. “I think they’re going to have restaurants and stuff hooked up for us, so we’re going to be happy about that after everything.”
Ovechkin contract not coming soon
Monday was the first day Ovechkin was eligible to sign a contract extension with the Capitals, according to how the NHL is approaching its revised schedule. Before the pandemic changed everything, the date would have been July 1, the start of the new league year.
But Ovechkin said Monday that no contract discussion has taken place yet.
“Not even talking, not even thinking about it because right now we have lots of stuff to do,” Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin has one year left on his contract — the 2020-21 season — so there will be time later this year for a deal to get done.
Get ready for Dillon-Orlov
The Capitals split their 31 active players Monday into two groups. The morning group featured four defensemen, including Brenden Dillon and Dmitry Orlov.
A Dillon-Orlov second pairing was in the works the week the pandemic postponed the season. With the blue line hitting more than a few midseason bumps, Reirden wanted to try different combinations after Washington acquired Dillon ahead of the trade deadline. Dillon started his Capitals days on the top pair with John Carlson.
Monday’s practice was mostly about getting players skating for longer periods of time and starting to work them into game shape. But going forward, expect the coaching staff to try out Dillon and Orlov together as they plot their defensive pairings for the playoffs.
“Obviously we didn’t do a lot of 3-on-2 type of drills,” Reirden said. “You’ll see more of that tomorrow and Wednesday as we get going into our day off, and we can take a look more at how they can form some chemistry together. Certainly, granted, Dillon was a big help to our team and certainly will help us defensively with his playoff style of hockey that he plays. He’s no fun to play against.”