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Imperfect and incomplete, NHL’s return plan good news for Coyotes

Nick Bonino #13 of the Nashville Predators takes a faceoff against Derek Stepan #21 of the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on November 15, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tuesday’s news that the NHL has identified a return-to-play format is filled with nuance, complexity and caveats.

The Arizona Coyotes feel like they accomplished their goal of getting to a postseason, but the league said the playoffs will technically begin after the initial play-in round that Arizona has against Nashville. The league isn’t yet back, but we now know what “back” would look like. A return to play plan is both cause for celebration and, perhaps for some, trepidation over safety and separation from family, or frustration from teams that feel it’s unfair.

To succinctly characterize this week’s news about a return-to-play format is challenging.

But undoubtedly, there’s good news to be found.

“There’s a lot of hurdles that still need to be hopped before we play any type of hockey, but we got a second chance and we get to play in the playoffs,” forward Derek Stepan said. “And I’ve been saying it since I got down to Arizona, this type of series hockey is so much fun to be a part of.”

Call it a playoff or a play-in, the Coyotes playing at all following the conclusion of the regular season is good news. The Coyotes haven’t been a playoff team since 2011-12, and to play a best-of-five series against the talented Nashville Predators is a needed step in the right direction.

“My take on this is we’re playing the postseason,” GM John Chayka said. “Some teams aren’t playing anymore, we still are. We’re going to play in a series against a good team, I expect it to be a good, hard series. I think it’s semantics to term it one way or the other for us. That was what we’re looking to do.”

“I think it’s a moot point like John said, it’s all semantics,” head coach Rick Tocchet said. “Either way, we have an opportunity.”

As Stepan described it, the team wanted a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup, and they’ll now have that. That is, if all the other “hurdles” are cleared first.

The NHL will have to narrow its shortlist of hub cities — which was at 10 when commissioner Gary Bettman named them Tuesday — down to two. Those cities will have to be compatible with the league’s ambition for getting players and staff together en masse, in a “bubble”, playing hockey after having quarantined anywhere from Los Angeles to Ontario to Russia.

Hotel reservations, travel, contingencies for the “what ifs,” practice facilities, locker room arrangements, television broadcast logistics and more will have to be sorted out. And then there’s the dreaded possibility of a second wave of coronavirus cases, which might throw the brakes back on sports again.

“I think if there’s one thing that both the NHL and the players association are pushing for it’s solutions that make everyone feel safe and give us the opportunity to play the game the way it should be played,” Stepan said. “There’s certainly a lot of things that I think can be done that might take some time that are manageable and that both sides are going to have to find that middle ground.

“For now, I would say it’s not impossible but there’s hurdles that need to be jumped.”

For Arizona specifically, more good news lies in the reality that the Coyotes have key players who could benefit from time off. Conor Garland, for example, got injured just before the season paused. Darcy Kuemper had just returned from injury, while others had nagging injuries they could address.

“It’s an opportunity for everybody when we get back to it,” Tocchet said.

For all its pros and cons, the return-to-play format serves this much: Arizona has an opponent, and a potential for a playoff run. Now it awaits a date and location.

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