Hockey teams are used to the travel that comes with their season. It’s part of the routine athletes crave.
So though Islanders coach Barry Trotz, mentally needing a change of scenery, left Long Island for his lakeside property in British Columbia six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to pause its season on March 12, he wonders how a lack of travel will affect the players if play does resume.
“It’ll help physically, 100%,” Trotz said on Friday in a radio interview with WFAN’s Evan Roberts and Joe Benigno. “Mentally, I’m not so sure. We haven’t been able to travel for two months now. As humans, especially as athletes, we’re used to traveling. We’re used to moving on, seeing different things. One of the reasons I came up to Canada after things slowed down was to get a little bit of a break from my house in New York. It was a good relief.”
Under the NHL’s return-to-play format, the seventh-seeded Islanders will face the 10th-seeded Florida Panthers in a best-of-five qualifying series for the league’s 16-team playoff. Each conference will have 12 teams sequestered together in a hub city.
Trotz approves of the plan and believes it will be a legitimate test for the Stanley Cup. But he knows the differences will be more than just not playing in home arenas in front of fans.
“It’s totally new to everybody,” Trotz said. “Going in, the team that can keep their focus, the team that can understand it’s not normal and accept the new normal, it will be an advantage to them.
“In the playoffs, things happen real quick,” he added. “The problem is, you could have 12 teams in one hotel. You lose Game 1 to the team you’re playing, you might be next door to them having a meal and walking by them left and right. Sometimes, if you don’t win, the best thing to do is you’ve got to cleanse a little bit. It’ll be harder to do that when you keep running into your opponent. Emotionally, it might be really intriguing to run into somebody you don’t like and keep running into somebody you don’t like away from the rink.”
The NHL hopes to reopen its team facilities to small-group workouts — a maximum of six players at one time without coaches — in early June. Formal training camps will not begin until July 10 at the earliest, meaning games are unlikely until August.
“It’s such a different situation for the athlete,” Trotz said. “You have a guy like Mathew Barzal, who’s in Vancouver. There’s virtually no pandemic there. He might be skating for two or three weeks. Matt Martin is still in New York. He may not be able to get on the ice. We’re going to have to be very smart as coaches and we’re going to have to adjust our training on almost an individual basis.”
Trotz also was asked about top Russian goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin, a third-round pick in 2014 whose KHL contract expired on April 30. He has yet to sign with the Islanders, likely as his representation and Islanders president and GM Lou Lamoriello wait for the NHL to make a final determination on whether he’ll be able to play this season. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league’s preference is not to have new player contracts eligible for this season.
“I’m hearing good things,” Trotz said. “I know Lou has been in contact with the league and the KHL and I know the young man wants to come over. This is such a strange year. But if they can get it done, I’m sure he’ll be looking to be with the Islanders and we’d be looking forward to having him.”
Notes & quotes: Jean-Gabriel Pageau, acquired from Ottawa on Feb. 24, skated for the first time since the pause on Friday at a rink in Ottawa. “I’m sure the next few weeks will give us a lot of new information,” Pageau told reporters. “It will be good to be on those calls to learn more about the rules and what’s going to happen.”