Phase Three of the National Hockey League’s Return to Play plan has begun. Teams have started practices to prepare for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers that kick off on August 1st.
The word unprecedented is being used frequently these days, but it is an apt descriptor of what the sport of hockey has in store over the upcoming months. Never before have there been Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Or NHL hockey in August. Or 30-player rosters with unlimited goaltenders.
There could potentially be 52 games in just nine days.
35 current and former Knights were named to their team’s Return to Play rosters. Of those 35, 20 are former first-round picks, 11 are members of the teams that won back to back Ontario Hockey League championships in 2012 and 2013, and eight are members of the 2016 Memorial Cup-winning team.
Considering the expectations of golf, movie theatres and buffets available in the hub cities, former teammates will have plenty of time to catch up and reminisce about their time in London. But when the puck drops, any amiability will disappear.
Patrick Maroon (2007-08) and Robert Thomas (2016-2018) will look to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, this time on different teams. The wingers played on either side of Tyler Bozak on last year and teamed up to score the game-winning goal in double overtime of the Western Conference semi-finals.
This time around, Maroon will be playing for another powerhouse: the Tampa Bay Lightning. Thomas, still only 20 years old, had 42 points in 66 games as a sophomore with the Blues.
In Edmonton, the host Oilers will take on the Chicago Blackhawks. Former Knights captain Evan Bouchard (2015-2019) got the call-up from Bakersfield and could line up against his former defensive partner Adam Boqvist (2018-19), who has enjoyed a promising rookie season in the Windy City. Andreas Athanasiou (2010-2012) will also be looking to make his playoff debut as an Oiler. The speedy winger, who arrived from Detroit at the trade deadline, has spent time on the flanks of both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisatl.
Connor McMichael will look to make his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals following his breakout season in London. The 2018 Stanley Cup champions will be without centre Lars Eller, leaving a vacancy in the middle of the ice. Winning another cup would be the icing on the cake for John Carlson (2008-09), who has played his way into the Norris Trophy discussion this season.
The Colorado Avalanche has four ex-Knights in its ranks after acquiring Nazem Kadri (2008-2010), Vladislav Namestnikov (2010-2012) and Michael Hutchinson (2009-10) this season. They will join forces with Russian defenseman Nikita Zadorov (2012-2014) and should prove to be one of the cup favourites.
Arguably the most exciting play-in series for Knights fans to watch will be the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets. John Tavares (2008-09) leads an exciting group of young stars including former CHL Player of the Year, Mitch Marner (2013-2016), to the playoffs. The buzz in Toronto is whether Marner will line up next to Tavares or Auston Matthews. According to GTAnalytics, Marner set up Matthews to score 12 times this season, tied for the fourth most effective combination in the league. However, last season he had an incredible 22 primary assists on Tavares’ goals. While a tough decision for coach Sheldon Keefe, it is certainly a good problem to have.
The Blue Jackets enter the return to play with two former Knights on their roster. Liam Foudy (2016-2020), who was named London’s Most Valuable Player on Thursday, will fight to make his playoff debut. Foudy was called up to Columbus twice in February on an emergency basis and recorded his first career point. Defenceman Scott Harrington (2009-2013) has solidified a spot on the Columbus blueline after being traded from Toronto in 2016.
There are many other story lines to watch for London fans: Matthew Tkachuk (2015-16), Christian Dvorak (2014-2016) and Max Domi (2011-2015) have become leaders for their teams. In Chicago, Patrick Kane (2006-07) is in pursuit of his fourth Cup and Olli Maatta (2011-2013) hunts for his third. Knights all-time top scorer Corey Perry (2001-2005) has found a new home in Dallas after spending 14 seasons with Anaheim.
A testament to the reputation the organization has built as an elite producer of talent, this could be the sixth year in a row a former Knight has their name written on Lord Stanley’s Cup. With players on 16 of the 24 teams in the return to play, that outcome is more likely than not.