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Capitals GM on NHL’s return to play: ‘Answers aren’t always completely there’

General Manager Brian MacLellan said the team has been doing the best it can to prepare to open MedStar Capitals Iceplex and allow players to work out. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan knows resuming the NHL season amid the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought more questions than answers. The endless inquiries only continue, with dates, times and locations changing daily, even with the NHL’s return-to-play plan announced this week.

The framework is there for a 24-team expanded playoff format played in two to-be-determined hub cities, possibly beginning in late July or early August, and people around the league are “cautiously optimistic” about the league’s return. However, MacLellan acknowledged the whole operation is still a “tremendous challenge” to pull off.

“Answers aren’t always completely there, so it is frustrating that way, so I think we move forward cautiously,” MacLellan said on a video conference call Friday. “We would love to play games, but if it doesn’t make sense, it might not even happen. . . . We try to balance the excitement of playing games versus the reality of how we as a sport are moving forward with the virus. How is society handling it? How fast is it going to happen?”

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MacLellan and the organization are trying to prepare “the best we can.” That starts with Phase 2 of the league’s return-to-play proposal, which is expected to begin in early June and will allow teams to open their practice facilities to no more than six players at one time for voluntary workouts. No coaches would be allowed on the ice during those sessions.

The ice is being prepared at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, which remains closed to the public. The team and the league are in contact with state and local officials regarding when the facility will be able to reopen. MacLellan said his main focus has been talking with trainers and team doctors on how to make the facility the safest environment possible.

“We’re trying to comply with what we believe are regulations that are continually evolving,” MacLellan said. “Trying to do the best we can to prepare to open up the rink and to allow guys to work out and, I think most importantly, to allow guys to feel comfortable with the environment that we’re creating, that they can come in and work out and are reasonably protected from being infected from the virus.”

About six Capitals players remain in the Washington area and would be able to skate at the team facility once it opens. The other players on the roster, especially those who traveled overseas, are expected to return to the area once a date is set for training camp. All players will have to quarantine for 14 days before they are allowed to practice.

MacLellan also said he expects training camp to be about three weeks, because many players have not been on the ice since the season was suspended March 12. As they normally would in the playoffs, teams are allowed to bring up prospects. For the Capitals, those could include 2019 first-round draft pick Connor McMichael, 19, who had 47 goals and 55 assists in 52 games for the London Knights and was named to the all-Ontario Hockey League second team.

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Beck Malenstyn and Pheonix Copley, who were with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., will be in camp. NHL teams will be allowed 28 skaters and unlimited goalies for the playoff roster.

“I think it would be a great learning experience for Connor,” MacLellan said. “He seems to be a guy that can pick up things from good players, from watching them, being around them. … I think it would be invaluable for him.”

When asked about their comfort levels returning to play, MacLellan said, “Players are uncertain about how they feel about it and how they can protect themselves and how they can protect their families.”

A handful of Capitals have welcomed babies since the season was suspended. Across the league, talk of leaving family for an extended period has surfaced often, with some players saying they don’t want to be in such a situation. There are negotiations ongoing between the league and the NHL Players’ Association about the players’ concerns.

“We have to treat each player individually and how their belief system is,” MacLellan said. “We’ve got to try and make them as comfortable as they can [be]. If they are not comfortable, we got to try and work with them and move forward. That’s the only situation we can do.”

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