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SportsPulse: Mackenzie Salmon provides an in-depth breakdown of the NHL’s new plan to return to action which includes a 24-team tournament leading up to the Stanley Cup Finals.

USA TODAY

In about two weeks, the NHL plans to move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 of their return-to-play protocol in hopes of finishing the 2019-20 season. And while the league seems confident in reaching its end goal of awarding the Stanley Cup, there still remains plenty of obstacles.

Players have had the ability to partake in voluntary workouts at their respective team’s facilities during Phase 2 with on-ice groups consisting of no more than 12 players, double the initial maximum of six after the NHL loosened regulations beginning Tuesday.

The league’s latest move toward a restart comes just days after 11 players were announced to have tested positive for COVID-19 among the 200 screened, according to figures released by the NHL on Friday.

Three of those players were with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, forcing the team to shut down its facility on Friday. The Lightning re-opened their doors on Wednesday.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos echoed the thoughts of many regarding the NHL’s current trajectory, tweeting an emoji of a thinking face in response to the report.

The NHL is frequently testing both players and staff and is expected to provide updates on positive tests going forward. But with a handful of players already infected, is the road really all that clear as the league progresses toward a de-facto training camp beginning July 10?

A significant percentage of the public is quick to write off any threat to players, suggesting they possess some sort of athletic shield that will prevent them from serious COVID-19 complications. And while there may be some truth to that, given their relative health and age bracket, what about older coaches and team staff? What about players with chronic health conditions such as former Coyotes forward Max Domi, a Type 1 diabetic, who now plays for the Montreal Canadiens?

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Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona is the only NHL player to be identified as testing positive for COVID-19. The news came last week in a report from the Toronto Sun, which added that multiple Coyotes players also tested positive for the virus.

The Coyotes could not confirm the report. The only confirmed case of COVID-19 connected to the Coyotes is the staff member who tested positive on June 13.

Still, given that Matthews has been staying at his Valley residence since the NHL’s season pause, it is possible that Matthews planned to join the Coyotes’ Phase 2 program had he not received a positive test.

Matthews’ case also opens up a separate can of worms for the NHL, which will likely have to grapple with inevitable inconsistencies in terms of competitive balance if teams are able to return to play.

According to the NHL’s Phase 2 guidelines, any symptomatic or positive-case player is deemed “unfit to play” and “his condition shall be treated as a hockey related injury for all purposes under the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” according to the document released by the league.

The NHL also defers to CDC guidelines in the document outlining the discontinuation of isolation after a player tests positive. Essentially, any players who test positive are required to isolate for a minimum of 10 days if they do not show symptoms or they must test negatively on two separate respiratory specimens submitted at least 24 hours apart.

This opens up the possibility that players could miss significant portions of training camp or even games due to testing positive for COVID-19 or even potentially just being in contact with someone who did. Certainly any team missing a player – especially someone of Matthews’ caliber – would be at a disadvantage.

With the NHL hoping to successfully implement a 24-team postseason format, the potential of volatility in competitive balance could threaten the integrity of the game as much as the situation already threatens the safety of players and staff.

Richard Morin covers the Coyotes and Diamondbacks for azcentral sports. He can be reached at rmorin@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him on Twitter @ramorin_azc.

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