Hurricanes finally back on ice; Staal notes ‘different feel’

With safety protocols in place, Carolina begins organized preparation for its play-in series with the Rangers

Jordan Staal, right, and Justin Williams are two of the veterans who will lead the Hurricanes into the NHL’s unchartered return. (Keith Srakocic / AP Photo)

Jordan Staal and some of his Carolina Hurricanes’ teammates returned to the ice for the first team-organized skate in more than three months, the latest step in NHL’s attempt to return and finish the 2019-20 season.

“It could blow up; it could not. It could be great,” Staal said in a Zoom call with reporters following the team’s Phase 2 workout. “No one really knows, but from what I’ve seen, they’ve done the best they can to make sure that everyone’s safe and hopefully we’ll keep it that way.”

Safety, of course, will be the top priority of the players and the league, who are ironing out agreements on where and how the agreed-upon play-in series and playoffs will be played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hurricanes are set to face the New York Rangers in a five-game play-in series, with the winner advancing to a 16-team bracket that, on the surface, will look a lot like a standard Stanley Cup Playoffs — with a handful of exceptions.

The play-in and playoff games will be played in two “hub” cities — Las Vegas and Toronto are considered the frontrunners, and in that scenario, Carolina would head to Canada — with no fans in the stands. Another change is the playoff teams will be reseeded after each round, with the highest-seeded team facing the lowest.

Teams that had lost players to short-term injuries will get many of those players back for the season’s resumption. That includes the Hurricanes, who will have top-pairing defenseman Dougie Hamilton available — Staal said he skated Tuesday with the 6-foot‑6 blueliner, who suffered a broken fibula in mid-January — and may finally get to see how trade deadline acquisition Sami Vatanen fits into their defense.

That all started in earnest with the first small group skate, a return that the team captain admitted was a little bizarre.

“I mean, it’s different,” Staal said. “Pretty much my whole life I’ve had the same routine of September starts, you have the season going and you have your summers off. (It’s) definitely a little bit different feel. The lake up north right now is really nice. It’s tough not to be there, but at the same time (I’m) excited to have a chance of winning a Cup.”

The restart should provide some interesting opportunities for various players.

Justin Williams, the 38-year-old who re-signed with the team Jan. 7 and played his first game back with Carolina 12 days later, will pursue his fourth Stanley Cup and was riding a five-game goal streak when the league was shut down.

Wingers Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Dzingel had underperformed through the season’s first 68 games and probably welcome a cleaner slate.

And then there’s Morgan Geekie, the 21-year-old center who played his first two games right before the NHL was shut down and had a welcoming party for the ages, totaling three goals and an assist in two wins.

“I feel bad for Geeks. He was on a roll,” Staal said. “It’s obviously too bad, especially for him, but he’s going to be a good player, I think, for a really long time. So he’ll be just fine.”

For now, Staal and his teammates aren’t looking too far ahead. The NHLPA still has to vote on the negotiated proposal — Staal said he thought a vote, which sounds like it will also include an extended collective bargaining agreement, might happen last weekend, but “a lot of guys working on calls every other day or every day for hours trying to figure this out and try to get hockey back for the fans” — and the players still need to knock the rust off in preparation for games.

While the normal bumps, bruises and nagging injuries associated with having played more than three-quarters of the season won’t be there, Staal said fresher bodies don’t necessarily mean better hockey.

“You get training camp with (coach Rod Brind’Amour) and you’re going to be a little sore, but I think there is going to be some freshness and I think there could be more mistakes, too,” Staal said. “I think you start dialing in your game throughout a season and you roll right in the playoffs and you got everyone humming, where taking two, three months completely off of hockey and mixing a few skates here and there and (being) thrown right into a playoff game, it’s going to be interesting hockey, obviously.

“No one really knows how it’s going to look, but we’re going to have some fresh legs and healthy bodies, and the hockey could be really exciting,” he added. “Who knows? Because it could be a lot of mistakes and stuff like that, but hopefully that’s not gonna be our team. But it could make for some entertainment.”