The regular season is over, so who wins the Calder Trophy?

With the NHL announcing on Tuesday its return to play plan to take place later this summer, there were a lot of questions left unanswered. Which hub cities will win the right to showcase the NHL playoffs? Will we actually get to see the entire playoffs?

Or, if you’re like me, you’re wondering who’ll win the Calder Trophy.

Awarded to the NHL’s top rookie, the race was so, so tight in 2019-20. I personally predicted that Cale Makar would take the title after seizing his opportunity in Colorado. He lived up to the expectations, no doubt, but then came fellow college defender Quinn Hughes in Vancouver. Solid from the get-go, Hughes was chasing records early and taking full advantage of the spotlight when Makar went down with an injury early in the season.

Now here we are: just about to enter June, the usual month for the NHL Awards but with no actual date in 2020 confirmed now, looking at the race between two of the best rookie defensemen we’ve seen in some time. Who wins? How close is it truly? Let’s take a look:

Makar vs. Hughes

On the surface, it’s easy to say Hughes was the more important defenseman to his respective franchise. The Canucks weren’t expected to be a contender in the west, while the Avalanche likely would have still been a force without Makar. Hughes’ 53 points was the most by an active defenseman in their rookie season and the best since Niklas Lidstrom’s 60-point effort in 1991-92. But prior to the shutdown, Hughes was on pace for 63 points – the eighth-best by a rookie defenseman in NHL history. And to think that Makar, who played in nine fewer games, was three points out… that shows you how good both of them were. For all rookie defensemen with at least 50 games played, Makar’s 1.82 points-per-60 was tops, with Hughes sitting second with a 1.27.

Hughes played heavy shutdown minutes for the Canucks, but with a 6-26-6 record when he played at least 23 minutes, that raises some questions. Should the Canucks have been relying so much on a rookie a year removed from college? That’s the problem: the Canucks needed an upgrade on defense in a way Tyler Myers couldn’t match, and Hughes was forced to fill in as a result. Statistically, some of his best hockey came in the 18-21 minute mark, with all four of his three-point games coming when he played under 20 minutes. In a non-overtime affair, Hughes had two points while playing over 20 minutes just once. Albeit on a smaller scale, the Avalanche faired a bit better with a 5-4-3 record when Makar skated in over 23 minutes. But then again, Makar, who mainly played second-pairing minutes for the Avalanche as opposed to Hughes’ top pair, played 34.1 percent of his shifts against “elite” quality players, per PuckIq. Hughes tracked at 32.6 percent, but also played more games overall. Those numbers sit among the top for all rookie defensemen, so it’s not like one was drastically better than the other. But we can gather that Hughes needed to take on more responsibility in Vancouver, based on his ice time, than Makar did.

The point difference between the two is close, and we’re talking about defensemen here. So let’s dig deeper. At 5-on-5, Makar has the edge with eight goals, 10 first assists and 28 points. He’s also one of two defenders at even strength to have at least five goals and a 10 percent shooting percentage, with Carson Soucy sitting at 10.53 with six goals. Hughes had a slight Corsi-for percentage advantage at 52.64 over 52.33 – so close. Only Los Angeles’ Matt Roy had a better CF percentage among players with at least 30 games played.

Hughes was forced to face tougher matchups this year as a shutdown defender and his numbers were fantastic given the situation: his 49.87 expected-goals-for, 44.49 expected-goals-gainst tops Makar’s 37.16 xGF and 32.32 xGA at 5-on-5 by a solid margin.

In the chart below measuring goals above replacement, Makar is the highest among rookie defensemen at 15.8, while Hughes finished with 11. Despite the deficit, it’s an impressive number for Hughes, with John Marino and Adam Fox being the only other rookie defenders to beat out the Canucks star.

What do these numbers tell us? When you put all the stats together, it’s too close to say one player was much more deserving than the other. In fact, we’re detailing two defensemen who, in any other year, would be just as commendable in the Calder Trophy race. One plays on a team loaded with young talent and a threat to win it all when the playoffs kick off, even if he isn’t playing top-pairing minutes just yet. The other is a on a team nearing the end of a rebuild that still has some holes to work on, yet gets great results out of its youngest blueliner. No matter what, we’re talking about a player who’ll be a Norris Trophy contender for at least the next decade, and that’s something that doesn’t happen each season.

It also depends on what matters the most to you: the overall team situation or points. By rates, Makar had the better offensive season, but he also spent significant time passing to Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen – a line, when healthy, is among the NHL’s top trios. It’s not like Hughes had a bunch of nobodies to setup, though: Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser were, as expected, important offensive leaders for the ‘Nucks, but Makar had one of the NHL’s best players to pass to each night.

From what we’ve seen, Hughes’ value offensively is on the power play. Nearly half (25) of his 53 points came with the man advantage – six points clear of Makar and four off of Torey Krug for the lead among all defenders. Given that 47.1 percent of his points come with the man advantage (despite being just over 17 percent of his total ice time), it’s safe to assume that’s where the Canucks trust him to do his most offensive damage.

So, again, you have to have context to evaluate both situations. Regardless, what a crazy battle between the league’s top two rookie defenders.

The Second Tier

When I put my poll up earlier this week, a bunch of people wrote-in New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox, and rightfully so. On a team with so much potential in its young players, Fox was the best of the bunch. In an interview with Newsday’s Colin Stephenson a few months back, Ryan Strome said “It’s not only what he does with the puck – his poise is unbelievable in how savvy he is with the puck – but he seems to be able to play defense without hitting anyone. He takes the puck away from guys, and he just starts skating up the ice. He’s a real gem.’’

Adam Fox (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Statistically, Fox was one of the only guys who could hang with Makar and Hughes. Fox’s 14.9 goals-above replacement and 2.7 wins-above replacement put him nearly on par with Makar, and his 22 points at full strength were good for third among rookie defensemen. For most of the season, Fox was a second-pairing guy on a poor team, but his numbers show a much bigger impact than you’d expect in that situation. In a normal year, he’d be the best rookie defenseman in the class and his numbers suffered a bit given the team he was on, but Fox is going to be so good for a long, long time.

Further down the Calder clash, Dominik Kubalik scored 30 goals in Chicago, a non-playoff contender not too shabby for a former seventh-round pick who took six years to hit the NHL. Say what you want about high point totals on traditional non-contenders (Chicago was unlikely to make the post-season before the 24-team format was announced), but Kubalik brought offense to a team that didn’t get much out of reigning 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat. Kubalik was the only forward to record at least 20 goals (23) and 30 points at full strength (35) and was generally seen as the league’s top rookie forward. Playing with a stout playmaker like Jonathan Toews helped, but Kubalik deserved that opportunity.

What about John Marino? The 23-year-old joined the Pittsburgh Penguins after a three-year stint at Harvard University, recording a career-high 16 points in 2017-18. But through all the injuries in Pittsburgh this season, Marino was one of the steady forces on the blueline, making guys like Jack Johnson look better than ever. Marino was lauded for his stellar defensive stylings and he deserves praise as one of the best rookie blueliners in his own zone. Granted, he doesn’t have the pizzazz the three ahead of him do, but in terms of reliability, Marino deserves a ton of credit.

Victor Olofsson proved he was one of the best goal-scorers that Eichel ever had in Buffalo and should have no issue putting up 30 goals a year when healthy. On the power-play, Olofsson played a huge role with 11 goals and 17 points. But at five-aside, Olofsson had six goals 19 points, putting him in a three-way tie with Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin for fourth on the Sabres. The Sabres will want a bit more production out of him at 5-on-5 in the future, but he gave the team some hope.

I can’t leave this without giving a shoutout to Martin Necas, who impressed, as expected, in Carolina this season. As he continues to develop, he’ll play a role on a team set to contend for the Stanley Cup over the next decade – and I hope you’re excited, Caniacs. Same goes for Edmonton’s Ethan Bear, who emerged as one of the best options on the backend for Edmonton in a system with a few notable prospects in the pipeline. I profiled him back in November, and not much has changed – other than he proved he can handle full-season duties. Nick Suzuki also deserves a shoutout for his impressive numbers in Montreal – the chase for the No. 1 center spot in Habsland looks a little but clearer.

The Goaltenders

How about goaltenders? We saw one of the most exciting freshmen goalie classes in some time. It all starts with Ilya Samsonov, who, for a while in Washington, was unbeatable. It came at the best time possible for the Capitals, who may finally have an out on an expensive Braden Holtby extension. Samsonov’s .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 was 11th among goalies with at least 25 games played, with his 4.34 goals-saved above average placing him 20th. Holtby was near the bottom in both categories and given it was Samsonov’s first shot at the NHL, the Capitals will likely continue putting their trust in the youngster with so much talent.

It’s a shame that MacKenzie Blackwood’s momentum came to an abrupt end the way it did because he was unstoppable for a few weeks. From Jan. 27 until March 10, Blackwood had an 8-2-2 record with two shutouts. His .939 save percentage and 6.52 GSAA at 5-on-5 made him a dominant force in the weeks leading up to the shutdown, giving the Devils something to look forward to after the rough campaign on the ice (and disappointing results from big-name newcomers P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes). Blackwood was inconsistent at times and having to lead a team that was out of the post-season picture as soon as the season kicked off didn’t help his case, but it appears as though the Devils finally have a young stud to lead the charge for the first time in the post-Martin Brodeur era.

Elvis Merzlikins (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Elvis Merzlikins was exactly as advertised once he finally got comfortable in Ohio and is ready to lead the team to glory in the post-Sergei Bobrovsky era. I was a huge fan of his back in the Swiss league and we can’t forget all those incredible performances at the Spengler Cup and World Championship. But a rocky start in 2019-20, where it took him nearly half a season to finally start a game at home, really made people wonder if he had what it takes to be what the Blue Jackets needed. That all changed when Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury following the Christmas break, Merzlikins gave the team new life in January with a 9-2-0 record and three shutouts before eventually landing on the sidelines himself. Merzlikins was magical when he found his flame, but we’ll have to wait until 2020-21, or whatever next season ends up being, to see what he can do for an extended period of time.

And just imagine if Igor Shestyorkin played enough games. The fight would have truly been on.

The Top Draft Picks

Sure, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko – the No. 1 and 2 picks from the 2019 draft respectively – didn’t live up to the hype in season one, but they didn’t stand a chance in the Calder Trophy race once it became clear Quinn Hughes and Makar were going pro at the end of 2018-19. Hughes’ struggles were well documented – the 5-foot-10 forward had just 21 points in 61 games, with his points-per-game mark of .344 becoming the lowest by a first overall pick in their rookie season since Vincent Lecalvier had a weak .341 in 1998-99. But that’s the thing – Lecavalier had nearly 1,000 career NHL points, and while they’re completley different players, Hughes will have the chance to rebound once he gets a bit of seasoning behind him – and perhaps a few linemates to play with.

In Kakko’s case, it’s fair to say the adjustment of moving to North America after spending your entire life in Finland had something to do with it. The New York Rangers showed some true promise at points, but was invisible far too often. At 6-foot-2 and just shy of 200 pounds, Kakko had the size to make an immediate jump, but as the Rangers continue to work out kinks in the development system (especially in regards to Vitali Kravtsov and Lias Andersson, Kakko should be in good shape to show why he was one of the best U-18 players in Liiga history.

Kaapo Kakko (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Chicago’s Kirby Dach was the third 2019 draft pick to stick in the NHL all year and while there were moments of greatness, it was far from a desirable year for the 6-foot-4 center. With 23 points in 64 games, Dach went long stretches without scoring, highlighted by just one point in 28 games from Nov. 21 – Jan. 18. I was hoping to see the Hawks send Dach to the World Junior Championship in December to help him earn more confidence, but the team felt it was in his best interests to remain with the pros in Illinois. Hopefully, we see more out of Dach in 2020 because it was far from a memorable rookie season for the No. 3 overall pick in 2019.

What the people say

I had my own opinions on the winner, but I wanted to see how other people reacted, too. A few nights ago, I put out a tweet asking for people to share who they think was going to win the Calder Trophy. The options were Makar, Hughes, Kubalik (the top forward) and other. I can’t say I expected Hughes to have nearly double the results, but I also have a significant number of Canucks followers and many made sure to share their thoughts.

The comments were mainly “Hughes and it’s not even close” and “Makar and don’t bother saying anyone else.” Of Course, as we’ve seen, the numbers suggest that, yes, in fact, it is quite close.

I then asked a few of my peers – prospect experts you likely know quite well and trust with their opinions. The name that came up more than any: Quinn Hughes. A few specifically detailed just how important he was playing heavy, vital shutdown minutes for the Canucks. Sure, his point-percentage wasn’t as impressive as Makar’s, but they’re defenseman after all. And when a team trusts you to come in and help change a team’s D-core like Hughes did, people notice.

My Pick

It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a Calder trophy battle this close. I would be happy with either choice. But when it’s this close, you have to go with your first instinct. And that’s why I think Quinn Hughes is going to win the Calder Trophy.

Quinn Hughes (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Like it or not, the PHWA – which I am listed as a member of – selects the winner of the Calder Trophy. Trust me, it’s still split among the voters. It’s as much of a coin toss at this point as you’d imagine. The hunch, though, is that Hughes will be the winner in the end. Whether or not the numbers support it, people have pointed out that Hughes had such an impact on a team that likely was another year or two from a playoff birth. The stats say Makar, but the “eye test” says Hughes was relied upon more.

Either defensemen is deserving of the award, and, in the end, it’s still a personal award. It doesn’t have any effect on the rest of us, other than for discussion’s sake.

But man oh man, the discussions are going to be fun.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Which unsigned NHL prospects are worth keeping an eye on?

On June 1, certain draft prospects that remain unsigned by their NHL clubs will have their rights expire and pushed into the free-agent market. The list of available names – found at the bottom of this post – is mainly made up of CHL players two years removed from getting selected, but a host of older players over in Europe will have their rights expire, too. A good explanation of the whole situation can be found here.

In the past few months, Tyler Tucker (St. Louis), Cam Hillis (Montreal), Wyatte Wylie (Philadelphia) and Kevin Mandolese (Ottawa) turned hot seasons into NHL deals, proving that development cycles are fluent and not everyone hits their stride at the same time. So, in a time where not much else is going on, there’s something to look forward to.

Here’s a look at a few prospects that I believe will earn some significant NHL attention, whether it’s with the teams that still hold their rights or another franchise down the line (this does not mean others won’t be given a shot, but these are guys I like, in particular):

Declan Chisholm, D (Winnipeg – fifth-round pick in 2018)
Chisholm was an important figure on one of the OHL’s most dominant offensive forces, the Peterborough Petes, this past season, reaching the potential many hoped he’d be capable of in his OHL draft year. But in the four years since, there’s been a fair share of ups and downs for Chisholm, and some questioned how good Chisholm would have looked on a weaker roster this season. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Chisholm won’t get signed this off-season, whether it’s in Winnipeg or elsewhere. Chisholm’s offensive abilities aren’t questioned and his reliability in his own zone has been a keen piece of improvement in the eyes of scouts – at the very least, they like him as a project depth signing that can put points on the board and chip in on special teams.

Nico Gross, D (NY Rangers – fourth-round pick in 2018)
I have a soft spot for Swiss-born players – I became an HC Davos fan because of NHL 06 and that eventually led me to follow the NLA, and, eventually, European hockey as a whole. One guy I’ve enjoyed watching was Gross, and while he has spent the past few years in the OHL, it still counts. Gross’ play has been a topic of debate, largely because he has very little value offensively (he did record a career-high 33 points this season, but over half were on the man advantage and doesn’t do a lot to excite scouts in that regard). The issue is he wont get many opportunities with the man advantage at North American pro when he really needs an opportunity to get more used to the puck.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think a team will sign him this time around, but will instead re-evaluate what Gross is capable of after a trip back home. Gross doesn’t have a contract in place for 2020-21, but we’ve seen Swiss-born prospects head back home for a few years before embarking on an NHL career. The four-time Swiss World Junior Championship member has value as a shutdown defenseman in the right system, but he’ll need to show further improvement in his overall makeup.

Connor Corcoran, D (Vegas – fifth-round pick in 2018)
A product of Vegas’ second draft, Corcoran is a name that stood out early in terms of unsigned prospects. Corcoran produced 50 points for the first time after earning adding extra offense to his usual stay-at-home style. The Windsor Spitfires defender moves quite well and reads the play in a way where he doesn’t overcommit on a play if it could end up putting him in a bad situation on the transition. He was a slow riser, but there’s been enough improvement in his game each season to warrant an NHL deal and become an intriguing depth option. It would be surprising if Vegas does indeed pass on Corcoran, but he’ll land somewhere.

Alexis Gravel, G (Chicago – sixth-round pick in 2018)
I wrote about Gravel at the 2019 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, saying he needed a big season to cement himself as a threat for Canada’s World Junior Championship team. Instead, Gravel struggled to turn Halifax’s campaign around after making the Memorial Cup the previous year (an early injury didn’t help) and finished his four-year tenure with less-than-desirable numbers. It was a disappointing end for a kid that played 50 games as a QMJHL freshman in 2016-17 – a rare accomplishment for any rookie goaltender in major junior – and looked destined to become an NHL starter.

So, where does Gravel go from here? There are still scouts who believe Gravel has a future as an NHL goaltender, but with the Blackhawks electing to put the team’s future (at least for now) in the hands of Colin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Dominic Basse, it won’t be in the Windy City. A good projection would have Gravel going to the ECHL next year to continue playing heavy minutes like he was used to in Halifax and show that he’s still a threat. At the very least, he’s the most desirable goaltending prospect hitting the UFA market on June 1, and it’s never a bad idea to widen your options.

Alexis Gravel (Photo by Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Luke Henman, C (Carolina – fourth-round pick in 2018)
This is a kid many people seem split on: is there enough offense to warrant a contract for Henman, or is there still some untapped potential? The good thing is finding out won’t cost a team much. One Quebec-area scout said he fully believes Henman will fight his way into an NHL lineup once he adds a bit more to his frame – he specifically cited his decision-making with the puck and high top-speed as strengths that could make him a third-line forward someday in the NHL. I’d like to see Henman bring his A-game on a more consistent basis, but I can see him making an impact in the AHL for a couple of years before transitioning into a full-time bottom-six role in the NHL.

Eric Florchuk, C (Washington – seventh-round pick in 2018)
Could Florchuk be a nice dark horse for some team? Florchuk wasn’t finding much success in Saskatoon this season with 24 points in his first 33 games, but a trade to Vancouver at the deadline saw him explode for 33 points in 25 games. While Florchuk could still add a bit of meat to his frame, he can play just about any role asked of him and doesn’t have any major flaws when dealing with the puck. He still needs to work on his consistency, but there’s been a steady improvement in his game and his confidence level has skyrocketed. He’s a longshot to make the NHL, but he’s still a good value seventh-round pick.

Mitchell Hoelscher, C (New Jersey – sixth-round pick in 2018)
Is Hoeslcher’s emergence as a solid prospect the result of having scoring star Jack Quinn on his side, or is there something more to Hoeslcher’s game that makes him with pursuing this summer? That’s the less-than-a-million dollar question right now. The third-year center had great numbers as Quinn’s wingman and developed into a capable goal-scorer himself, potting 34 goals after recording just 20 over the two previous seasons. An aggressive forward that is always on the move, Hoelscher’s improvement on the production side of things should be enough for a team, if not the Devils, to give him a shot and hope he finds some traction in the OHL. The issue? The Devils have a steady backlog of centers that could get even more complicated this year thanks to a strong draft down the middle. If New Jersey lets him go, don’t expect Hoelscher to go unsigned – and perhaps land with whichever team snags Quinn.

Curtis Douglas, C (Dallas – fourth-round pick in 2018)
Why do I have a distinct memory of watching Douglas skate in Oakville in the summer of 2014? Because he stands out like a sore thumb. Currently listed at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds (adding nearly 50 pounds since his NHL draft season), Douglas has the potential of becoming the second player of that height to play an NHL game – John Scott was the first. Douglas is a high-volume shooter that uses his strength to out-muscle his competition and despite the size, he doesn’t spend his time being a goon and crushing players to the ice. In terms of playmaking, Douglas does a splendid job of finding his teammates at a high speed. But there are some concerns: unsurprisingly, he’s not the quickest skater and there was hope he’d crack the 70-point mark this season, instead following short by 10 points. At the Traverse City tournament, Douglas sat out two of Dallas’ games and was invisible in the other two, which is hard to accomplish for a guy his size. Still, his size alone might be enough for a team to warrant a shot, and there are far worse players available on the market right now.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

The NHL’s return is going to be chaotic, so let’s embrace it

Remember precedented times? Remember meeting up with friends? Remember what it was like to go outside and not think you were instantly putting hundreds of people in danger?

Good times.

Back in April, I wrote about how I would be completely fine with the NHL moving on from 2019-20 and focus on having a safe, healthy return in the fall. The basis was mainly to keep the integrity of future seasons – keeping everything on schedule and allowing the NHL to work in unison (for the most part) with leagues around the world. Having the NHL operate on a different timeline than the rest of hockey would be a logistical struggle.

But that was me looking out for the big, old NHL and not the fans. And while I still stand by my belief that I would be completely fine with calling caput on the current season, there are “unprecedented times”. As this continues to drag on, we can’t keep looking at the NHL season like we would at any point over the past century. No matter what, the NHL season is going to have an unusual ending.

It’s understood that we’re getting close to a proper return to play plan. I’m not aware of the NHL’s financials and can’t claim to be an expert on how this is going to work for everyone’s wallets, but the NHL is a business. Money is important. The NHL isn’t going to make money sitting on the sidelines and waiting, and after NASCAR’s successful return to action over the pat few days, there’s evidence of a sport coming back and hitting things out of the park. It’s a bit different having one event on at a time where all fans of the sport is invested in it – a Vancouver Canucks fan likely isn’t dying to watch a matchup between the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets. But the NHL has an opportunity to really take control of the weeknight sports market, and that’s something Gary Bettman and the owners are enticed by (I don’t think I need a source to prove the NHL’s love of big paydays).

A 24-team playoff? All games limited to select venues? Setting the puck on fire to create real action? Force centers to take part in a karaoke sing-off to determine a faceoff winner? At this point, why not? The integrity of the 2019-20 season is gone. No matter what, there’s no saving the season and restoring it to what it was before. The Stanley Cup champion will always have an asterisk to some fans. Some good teams will miss out on the 16-team playoff format due to the play-in idea that’s been proposed. But again, that’s what makes the playoffs so much fun – look at the Blues last year, a team that was so off the mark just a few months before the post-season, but they won the Cup. Imagine Montreal or Chicago going all the way this year – that would be total bananas and a ton of fun.

We’ve been without hockey for over two months now. I almost completely forgot who the league’s top scorer was. If you had any momentum before the break (sorry, Philadelphia), it’s gone. But if there’s a chance for the world’s best hockey players to return, we, as fans, media, etc., should accept it. I’ve come to accept the oddities of the season, and let’s hope we never have to go through this again. 

I’ll embrace a return to action and, who knows, maybe we’ll get one of the greatest playoffs we’ve ever had. We can’t use the “players are tired” excuse. The playoffs that seem to drag on after the first round won’t feel like a marathon anymore. Every game will be must-watch action. It’s not like the league has any form of tradition when it comes to playoff formats – it’s been changed more times than I can count. Why 16 teams? Why not 20? Why not 10? Why not six and force teams to be near-perfect to get a shot at the Cup? We’re talking about an arbitrary number, and we know more teams equals more profit. If the NHL held a 12-team format into the salary cap era and then switched to 16, people would complain. Most humans like familiarity and tradition, so that’s understandable. But let’s not for a second think that a 24-team playoff is some god-forsaken idea created by Satan to punish us: sports leagues are businesses, and given that it would be practically unfair to just give the top 16 teams automatic playoff bids, you can’t blame the NHL for trying to earn as much TV revenue as they can when fans aren’t allowed in the rinks.

I’ll watch nearly any form of hockey. I don’t care if it’s Montreal vs. Toronto, Bahrain vs. Egypt or the Isobel Cup final – if it’s good, it’s good. It doesn’t need the best players to be entertaining. So here we are, with the chance to watch the world’s top players fight it out with more attention than ever before. Let’s do it.

One of hockey’s best qualities is that it can be unpredictable. Los Angeles rode the wave of Jonathan Quick and went from a team barely capable of making the playoffs in 2012 to a shocking league champion. The 2018 Olympics had some of the craziest action I’ve ever seen at a high-level event. So what’s another crank in the cog? Let’s embrace this. If the NHL returns, we’ll finally have hockey back.

That far surpasses whatever else we’ve been doing for the past few months, right? I know I’m ready.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Projecting goaltenders can be challenging, but Yaroslav Askarov is the real deal

You’ve likely heard the phrase “goaltenders are voodoo”, and for good reason. It’s the toughest position to scout. For every Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price – the goalies that lived up to the hype after getting selected early in the draft – there’s a Jamie Storr, Rick DiPietro or Al Montoya. Just for perspective, 22 goalies went in the first round from 2000-09 compared to seven over the next 10 years – and not a single one in the top 10.

So where does Yaroslav Askarov land?

I was recently asked on the daily show Gouche Live – a show I produced during my time at The Hockey News and still follow each day – if Askarov was the real deal. Besides, there’s a “big-name” goalie in each draft: last year, Spencer Knight became the touted goalie of the future for the Florida Panthers. Teams have typically veered clear of goaltenders in the first round in recent years – Spencer Knight to Florida at No. 13 was a bit of an oddity, with no goalie landing in the first round in 2018. Jake Oettinger was the lone netminder chosen in the first round in 2017 but there’s more hype for the likes of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Michael DiPietro and Cayden Primeau (a seventh-round pick) these days.

But if the 2020 draft was to commence today, there’s a very high chance that Askarov would be a top 10 pick. In other years, perhaps top five. That’s high praise for a young kid in a position where what you expect when you draft there rarely turns out to be a reality.

So what makes Askarov the “big-game” goaltender we’ve been talking about for the past few years? The “Dream Killer”, as my former colleague Ryan Kennedy dubbed him, was a standout at the 2018 Hlinka Memorial, leading his team to a bronze with a handful of incredible performances, highlighted by a 35-save shutout at the hands of the cantonment hosts from the Czech Republic (keep in mind, he was 16 at the time). A few months later, he was named to the U-17 World Hockey Challenge’s all-star team after one of the best outings seen out of a goaltender in recent years, posting a tournament-best 1.40 GAA and .948 SP en route to a gold. He capped off the dream season with a silver medal and top goaltender honors at the U-18 World Championship, giving Russia its best chance at the top podium spot despite facing a high-power Swedish offense in the final. Cap it off with a gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky last summer where he outperformed his performance from a year prior and you have a resume built on winning and leading his team to glory.

And before you say “it’s Russia, they’re always good,” it’s worth noting that it’s not a power-rich group this year. Askarov could end up being the only Russian taken in the top 15, and Rodion Amirov and Vasily Pomomaryov (playing in Quebec) could end up being the only others taken in the first round. Askarov continuously did a lot for a group that wasn’t high on star power, and he was rewarded a spot as Russia’s starting goaltender to kick off the 2020 World Junior Championship as a result. He struggled, but keep in mind the fact that he was playing against guys two years further down the development cycle. If, out of everything, that’s the only true black mark on his international CV, that’s quite fine.

I haven’t even gotten into his league exploits yet. Askarov made his KHL with SKA St. Petersburg this season at 17 and handled the pressure admirably in a 23-save victory over Sochi. Add in fantastic numbers in the VHL, the second-tier Russian league, and you’ve got someone performing at a high level before most kids his age get a taste above junior hockey. Overall, his stats outshine those from Vasilevskiy and Ilya Samsonov – considered two of the best Russian goaltenders to get selected from the past 20 years – at the same age.

Style-wise, Askarov has perfect NHL size at 6-foot-3 and his right glove hand is a tricky one to beat. Askarov has impressive rebound control and moves fluently post-to-post with minimal hiccups. Let in a bad goal? Askarov can bounce back and play his best hockey in the minutes after. He often gets aggressive with his poke check but can move quick enough to make up for a miscue. You’ll often hear that a goalie battles hard and doesn’t give up on a play, but he guards his net like it’s his kid: he’ll do whatever it takes to protect a lead and has the proper headspace to remain calm.

“Teams are always looking for goalies with a big-game mentality. Someone who takes every game like their job is on the line. Someone who can give his club a fighting chance, regardless of the game,” a scout told me last week. “Askarov exemplifies that better than anyone in recent draft classes.”

“How does that compare to someone like Carter Hart?” I asked.

“Hart is special, but Askarov is going to be Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy-level good,” the scout replied. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he gives an NHL team a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup by the time he’s 22.”

Only five goalies 22 or under played an NHL game in 2019-20, and Hart and Washington’s Ilya Samsonov were the only ones to play more than 10 games. But it wasn’t that long ago that 21-year-old Matt Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup – and then a second Cup the following year. But for every Murray and Jordan Binnington, you’re looking at the Corey Crawford’s, the Tim Thomas’ and Jonathan Quick’s of the world.

So could Askarov do it? He’ll likely land on a team in much poorer standing than Pittsburgh was when they chose Murray 83rd overall in 2012, but it’s not out of the question. Again, Askarov has a reputation as guy capable of winning important games, and if he makes his full-time KHL debut next season and finds a way to shine, it’s not out of the question. That’s just projecting, but the fact that that’s even being talked about at a point like this for a draft with no current date says just how optimistic scouts are about Askarov’s game.

Heck, I’m ready to declare that Askarov will win the Vezina Trophy one day. I’m simply THAT confident in Askarov. Call it a hunch if you will, but I can’t recall a time I was this excited about a goaltending prospect. Now it’s up to Askarov to prove me – and many others – correct.

To go back to the lede, goaltenders are challenging to predict, and a large reason why is ice time. Askarov could have received more KHL backup opportunities with other organizations, but he’s aligned with one of the best in the country. SKA hasn’t rushed him and has given him chances to play at a high level without exhausting his development. But he is still just 18, and goaltenders have a lot of development to go. The KHL isn’t known to be kind to young prospects, no matter the skill level. Just ask Vasily Podkolzin what he thinks about his ice time this year. Igor Shestyorkin and Ilya Sorokin are two examples of highly touted goaltending prospects that followed the slow, but steady path, and both are set to make the NHL look silly next season. But neither prospect, despite how good they were at 18, drew as much interest at Askarov, and his ability to outshine older competition on a weekly basis can’t be ignored.

Of course, top goaltenders each year earn that distinction for a reason – and typically, that’s because they’re dominant. But being a dominant major junior goaltender is much different than being a strong contender in European pro, and, in many cases, prepares players better than in North America based on the competition level. Askarov still has a long way to go, but if he comes roaring out of the gate in the KHL, it’ll further add to the narrative of Askarov stepping up when the stakes get higher.

Usually, teams avoid goaltenders early due to their unpredictable nature. In this case, the only reason he won’t go early is because of just how deep the top 10 is shaping up to be in 2020. Price was the last goaltender to go in the top 10 and while it’s not a far cry to think that Jesper Wallstedt could reach that territory in 2021, the fact that Askarov could break that streak is quite telling. Even if Askarov falls down to 20th, that won’t be a knock on his skill. Teams know what they’re capable of, and there’s no shortage of clubs looking for the goaltender of the future.

So time to make way for future Vezina Trophy winner Yaroslav Askarov. Hold me to that assertion.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Remembering NASCAR’s Trip to the Canadian National Exhibition

Today, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series accompanies the NTT IndyCar series to Toronto each July. I live near the track, so it’s an event I make sure to attend each year. It’s the only event on the schedule where IndyCar leaves the United States and there’s been no shortage of drama or action when the Pinty’s Series is involved. Along with the Grand Prix de Trois Rivières, it’s proof that NASCAR can produce incredible racing on a street course, and while getting the Cup cars today with nearly 40 entries would be a logistical challenge, it would be fun, nonetheless.

But at one point in time, NASCAR did make a trek up North to the Streets of Toronto – and the history surrounding it is quite fascinating. This is the story of the NASCAR Cup Series’ legendary trip to the Canadian National Exhibition – and the limited information surrounding it.

Located just outside the downtown Toronto core, Exhibition Place has a reach of nearly 200-acres. With transit taking you straight to the grounds, it’s easily accessible for local residents and hosts over a million people each summer. A month after the Honda Indy, the Canadian National Exhibition plays host to carnival rides, vast food offerings and even a big shopping centre – one where I tend to buy cheap hockey jerseys and obscure video games. Unfortunately, it was announced earlier this month that the CNE would not return for 2020 due to COVID-19 – just the second time the event hasn’t taken place in its 142-year history.

By the 1950s, stock car racing wasn’t new to Canada or Toronto specifically. Racing at Exhibition Place dates back to September 5, 1900, when the first race took place on a half-mile dirt track. According to Wheels.ca, a man named J. Short won with an average speed of 17.85 miles an hour or around 29 kilometres per hour. The Exhibition Grounds was used as a showcase facility for drivers to try and set records and there was even a race between a car and a plane in 1917 – not a fair match, as the car won the battle. It would have helped had the plane been able to move freely around the track.

The first race at Exhibition Stadium was held in April of 1952 with just under 8,000 fans braving the rain to watch Tom Forbes win the inaugural feature event. According to CanadianRacer.com, nearly 20,000 people turned out for the Canada Day event a few months later, with midget racing starting out a few days later on July 5.  On July 31 of the same year, the first NASCAR event – a 300-lap late model race – took place. It wasn’t the top division, but more so what we would consider the Xfinity Series today. Back then, admission for races were $1 for adults, which is about $10 today. Regardless of the time period, that’s crazy to think about these days.

Over time, more events were added to keep the action fresh and consistent. Racing wasn’t allowed on Sunday afternoons in Toronto at the time, so most races took place on Friday and Saturday evenings. Of course, the grounds also played host to the Canadian National Exhibition each summer, leaving the track out of commission at times. NASCAR returned for a handful of late model races over time, with NASCAR’s convertible series making a one-off appearance in 1956. Don Oldenburg won the event, which saw high attrition rates with just 14 of the 21 starters making it past the seven-lap mark.

The 1958 Jim Mideon 500 marked the 31st race of the 51-race schedule that year – and one of just two times the Cup series has ever come north of the border. In 1952, Buddy Shuman won a 17-car battle at a small dirt track called Stamford Park near Niagara Falls, but that’s pretty close to the United States border. By 1958, NASCAR had started to establish itself as a premier racing organization, so getting a race back then was a big deal.

Skipping to 1958, the track, better known as Toronto Speedway, was a third-of-a-mile oval on the Exhibition Place grounds, the same location of the current road track. Specifically, the track was housed right around where BMO Field is today, home of the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC – somewhere in the infield between turn five and turn nine and 10 today. 

Races would take place for a couple of decades, with the paved oval eventually forming in 1952. Early races would attract around 20,000 fans per event for just $1 admission, and even local radio stations would cover the races live. There wasn’t much competition for Toronto sports during the 1950s, especially in the summer, so sports writers gave special attention to events that we’d consider minor to this day. Eventually, NASCAR drivers were invited to take over in 1958, marking a historic event in auto racing in Canada.

According to local newspaper reports, around 10,000 spectators packed the stands at the small venue on July 18, 1958, designed to look and race like the famous Bowman Gray Stadium that still operates – and produces crash-filled events to this year – in North Carolina. It started off with three heat races for the 19-driver field made up purely of American drivers. The field had Lee Petty, Cotton Owens, Jim Reed, Shorty Rollins and Rex White, among others. But what people didn’t know they were witnessing was the start of a legendary career – the world was introduced to the driving styles of the King, Richard Petty. At 21, he was the youngest driver in the field, piloting the No. 142 Oldsmobile. He started the race in seventh, but was bumped out of the way by his father, Lee Petty, and was out of the race after 55 laps. Imagine that – it’s your first top-level race, you’re known as a talented up-and-coming driver, and your own dad takes you after becoming impatient. Richard was credited with a 17th place finish. The King went on to win seven championships and 200 race victories, so he turned out OK, I’d say.

The race itself took just 46 minutes to run, which wasn’t adnormal at the time. Rex White led the first 71 laps of the race, but Lee Petty led the final 28 laps and never looked back. It was Petty’s fifth win of the season and 35th of his career, en route to his first of three championship titles, while doing so at the age of 44. Now, granted, he was the only driver to race at least 50 events and back then the competition was very poor, but you can’t deny Lee’s impact on the sport as a racing pioneer. 

Lee won $575 for his troubles, with the race holding a purse of just $4,200. The event…. Wasn’t well received. In fact, in the Toronto Star column of the event, the Cup race had just a single paragraph compared to the 10 for the local short trackers. In John MacDonald’s article, he referred to the event as the “supposed highlight” of the race card, adding that “the spectators, enthusiastic about the regular stock car races, seemed bored by the late model cars” run by NASCAR’s best. Could it be because a fight in an earlier heat race for the local drivers provided more entertainment than the caution-free Cup series event? Perhaps, but it marked the final time the series raced in Toronto, with the top division never returning to Canada again.

But after the NASCAR event, plans started to get more complicated for the future of racing at the CNE. Late in 1958, the Toronto Argonauts football team signed a deal to use the infield space as a playing surface for 1959.  The track required some extra adjustments to meet the accommodations – most notably decreasing the size of the track to 28-feet wide. The drivers struggled to adjust to the narrower surface, with reports of widespread crashes plaguing the events the following season. The turns were widened by two feet later on to help combat the concern. In 1960, the track was finally given permission to race on Sunday’s, much to the delight of the organizers that tried for many years. Over the next few years, the track continued to see a variety of new events, with the series hosting major sprint, hobby and midget events often. In 1964, the super modifieds that dominated the track for over a decade were replaced with a stout late model series. It also played host to the USAC Midgets, which hosted the “Toronto 500” on a couple of occasions. In fact, Mario Andretti failed to make the main field for an event in 1965, so the competition was stout.

But as the years went on, race dates continue to drop and fans could start to see the beginning of the end. The oval at the CNE would remain open until 1966 when it was announced that the area of the speedway was to be replaced with a track-and-field coursr. There was some hope that the cars could run at the Coliseum just near where the track was located, nothing came out of it. All of a sudden, racing at the CNE was over – until the 1980s, that was. On July 20, 1986, the first Molson Indy housed a crowd of 60,000 people, with Bobby Rahal edging out Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti for the first victory.

In the late 1980s, with the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts having had control of Exhibition Stadium, there was talk of bringing racing back to the 17,000-seat facility, The City of Toronto helped make it happen, and nearly a million dollars later, the facility welcomed back stock cars for the 1990 season. Weekly racing included the CASCAR Late Model Series, the return of midget and hobby stock racing and even endurance events, monster truck shows and demolition derbies. Two mainstays in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, Kerry Micks and Mark Dilley, were among the competitors that raced in the late model series, with Randy Latour taking the title.

I wasn’t around to see races back then, but many fans took a liking to the track – but that wasn’t enough to save the rebirth of the facility. Advertising was scarce, with many events failing to host even 1,000 fans. There was still hope that racing could return in 1991 and 1992 as originally planned, but local fans started to complain – mainly about the noise, which is understandable given the fact it was close to some neighborhoods and increased traffic in the area didn’t help. In early 1991, after watching the track lose money due to poor attendance, the City of Toronto pulled the plug on what could have been a successful return of amateur racing to Canada’s largest city. There was an attempt to bring back racing in 1997, but to little interest – there’s next to no information about the return, and even diehard Canadian racing fans forgot it happened. At that point, stock car racing in the big city was dead – until CASCAR returned to the current IndyCar track in the late 1990s.

In July, the parking lots and local roadways around the grounds are populated by IndyCar, but in recent years, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series has been a highlight of the show card with close-quarters action and victories from some of the country’s top drivers, including Alex Tagliani, Kevin Lacroix and Andrew Ranger. It’s been a hot topic for debate – could NASCAR’s Cup Series race on a street course? There would be heavy logistical concerns with spacing, both in the garage and on track, but I’d love to see it – just not at the expense of the Honda Indy.

The Exhibition Stadium will forever be remembered as the original home of the Toronto Blue Jays before the MLB club moved downtown. But it’s great to think about NASCAR, and stock car racing in general, had such an important impact on the early days of sporting events on the CNE grounds. 

To read more about the event, check these links out:

http://racersreunion.com/community/forum/stock-car-racing-history/17015/rex-white-remembers-canada

https://theex.com/main/entertainment/stage,-talent-and-stunt-shows/the-ex-race

http://www.canadianracer.com/cne.asp

So, are you excited about the 2023 NHL draft yet?

I truly don’t know why you guys were so excited about my mini 2022 draft preview. I’m just going to assume you were all bored.

It’s one of the most popular articles I’ve posted on my own personal website and still, nearly a week later, is hitting impressive numbers. The draft is over two years away, but that hasn’t stopped you guys from looking ahead. So, thank you.

Some people tweeted me asking why so-and-so wasn’t included. First, it wasn’t a ranking, and I didn’t want to just name drop 20-30 players without much context. But, more often than not, it was because people were asking about guys that were eligible for the 2023 draft.

So let’s talk about the 2023 selection today.

The WHL was gifted with one of the most top-heavy drafts in the league’s existence: Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt. You’ve likely heard of Bedard’s name for the past 2-3 years by now, and for good reason. Bedard recently became the first WHL player to earn exceptional status and is set to take the Regina Pats to Western League supremacy. He’s just 14, but Bedard had 43 goals and 84 points in just 36 games against U-18 competition, good for first in league scoring. His shot is so dangerous, whether it’s a far-range slap shot or an in-tight wrist shot. Bedard has a quick release and his superb skating allows him to create his own scoring chances with minimal difficulty – simply put, he’s the best recreation of Connor McDavid that British Columbia has ever come up with, and he’s special.

For Yager – who wasn’t too far off of earning exceptional status behind Bedard – some scouts think he could be the better prospect when all is said and done. It’s too early to know how true that will become, but Yager is special. Watching him dangle Shane Wright – granted exceptional status for the 2019 OHL draft – before putting on one of the most impressive rookie seasons we’ve ever seen – with ease at the PEP high-performance camp last year was incredible. 

To finish off the tremendous trio, Heidt has an incredible skillset that allows him to get creative with the puck and take risks with a high degree of success. Heidt, like Yager, applied for exceptional status to no avail. Heidt makes everyone around him better thanks to his reputation stout playmaker and he’s willing to take risks (with a high degree of success) to make a play happen with the puck. Heidt will be a future star in Prince George, but 2020-21 will be about Heidt taking his game to a whole new level and show that he doesn’t need top talent around him to be a star.

Moving east, Adam Fantilli made a name for himself as one of minor midget’s best players as an underaged forward in 2018-19 and carried on to rip up the American prep scene this season. Had Fantilli not committed to the USHL’s Chicago Steel, he would have easily gone No. 1 in the OHL draft. Why? Obviously, with 15-year-olds, there’s still a ton of development left to go, but Fantilli is a physically dominant forward at 6-foot-2 and uses his strong frame to win puck battles essentially anywhere on the ice and fight off physical defenders. If he’s this far advanced at this age, who knows where he’ll be in another three years after putting a beating on other junior prospects?

Taking a flight overseas, it’s been a while since there’s been as much hype surrounding a Russian prospect Matvei Michkov – not even Andrei Svechnikov was this elusive. Born in late 2004, Michkov obliterated the Youth Olympic Games with nine goals and 14 points in just four games, the best in tournament history (Svechnikov had 10 points in 2016, for example). His 109 points in just 26 games in the Russian U-16 league gave him a 16-point advantage over Vladimir Khomutov for the scoring lead and second all-time behind Yegor Filin’s 136 points in 2014-15. When scouts are saying Michkov’s game – built around speed and pure skill – is a hybrid of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, you can’t get much better praise than that. A future 100-point forward in the NHL? Absolutely. Don’t be shocked if he goes No. 2 behind Bedard.

I tweeted earlier today how Slovakia’s national team has a potential to see a spike again thanks to some high-quality prospects coming through the system and at this point, Ondrej Molnar looks like a threat to go in the top five of the 2023 selection process. Small but speedy, Molnar’s 55 points put him first among U-15 forwards in the U-18 Slovakian league and second all-time behind Jozef Balej’s 56-point output (in five more games) in 1996-97. Molnar is a high-risk, high-reward goal-scorer that can take full control of a shift and often comes out with around 10 shots a game. Sure, the competition in Slovakia doesn’t match up with what we see in North America, but you can’t ignore what he has produced at this point.

Sticking in Slovakia, depending on who you talk to, Samuel Sisik and Daniel Alexander Jencko can both be considered the top Slovakian prospect. Sisik had 50 points in the Finnish U-16 league for the fourth-best output from a U-15 player in league history. Granted, his 1.67 points-per-game average is below all other forwards in the top 10, but for a Slovakian player to enter the Finnish system and put a beating on other kids his age isn’t something you can just ignore. In Jencko’s case, he had four fewer points than Molnar in 13 fewer games, in the U-18 league, on top of putting up 30 points in 13 games in the U-16 league. It’ll be interesting to see if Jencko ends up moving elsewhere in Europe to continue his development because he has nothing left to prove in his own nation – he’s ready to take on the continent’s top prospects.

The next David Pastrnak? Dominik Petr sure hopes so. A member of the famed Vitkovice system, Petr’s 98 points over two U-16 seasons is good for seventh among U-15 forwards, but he was one of the best players in the league when he was just 13. Petr’s stats hold up, but his ability to steal the puck off an opponent, go end-to-end and rush to be one of the first players back in his own one makes him such a tough player to play against. Like Slovakia, the Czech Republic needs help to ensure the nation has a good long-term future and there’s already enough hype around Petr to give fans some hope.

I put a lot of stock in the World Selects Invitational because, for the most part, it’s a way of pitting the best prospects in any individual age group early on. At the 2019 U-14 tournament, Nurmi led the tournament with 12 goals and 23 points (even though all eyes were on top 2024 prospect Aron Kiviharju) and was generally the best two-way forward in the tournament. At 13, Nurmi was already putting up impressive numbers in the U-16 league and eventually made the jump to the U-18 level this season, with his 18 points putting him behind Jesse Puljujarvi, Urho Vaakanainen and Patrik Laine among all-time best seasons by a U-15 player. The best part, he played the fewest number of games, so imagine what he could have done with more than 22 games under his belt.

Russia has had a tough time over the past two decades developing defensemen, but some Russian scouts are excited about Mikhail Gulyayev already – even comparing him to Mikhail Sergachev. Gulyayev is a confident puck-moving defenseman that plays a physical game and moves so well on his feet. Gulyayev’s 37-point, 1.37 PPG season with Omsk and Novosibirsk was the best by a U-15 defenseman in the Russian league ever and it’s clear he’s ready to tackle U-18 opponents in the near future.

I gave Calum Ritchie big praise in late April as the top 2021 OHL draft prospect and assuming he lives up to his full potential, NHL teams will be excited about him two years after that. Ritchie was dominant against kids a year older than him this season in short action and had no issue beating up on his own age group. Ritchie is a confident skater that goes above and beyond to get the puck where he wants it and doesn’t turn down any 1-on-1 challenge.

It’s still far too early to have a reasonable draft ranking for 2023, but with names like Kalan Lind, Nate Danielson, Quentin Musty, Noah Erliden, Luke Misa, Etienne Morin, Cam Squires and Koehn Ziemmer, the 2023 draft won’t have a shortage of high-end talent. Of course, there’s still enough time for things to drastically change and have someone shoot up the ranks or another fall down drastically, but there’s a reason why scouts have their eyes on 2023 already.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

NASCAR is the first sport to come back – and I’m not sure how I feel about it

I never thought I’d be advocating for NASCAR to not host races, but here I am.

I, like the rest of you, miss sports. That’s an understatement, especially when your livelihood revolves around it.

I made it clear that I think the NHL should just call it quits on 2019-20 and focus on coming back strong in 2020-21. And now, I’m left wondering if NASCAR is making the right decision by becoming the first sport to return to our television sets.

Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a sports fan – why would I not want something to come back? I’m just worried that maybe NASCAR is coming back too early before the world is ready for it. On one hand, NASCAR can use any promotion it can. As much as I’ve loved watching the iRacing events as an iRacer myself – and, apparently, a million people a week seem to agree – it’s far from the real thing and not a proper replacement.

But it’s going to be so weird having the sport come back in the way it is. I’m not going to any of the races (obviously), but after NASCAR’s conference call with media members on Thursday, it feels like there are more things you can’t do than you can. And that makes sense and I’m glad NASCAR is taking safety seriously.

But it just doesn’t feel right. Going back racing is a great way to bring normality back in the fold, but everything else is still on lockdown. We can’t go to the races. We can barely go to the grocery store. Does it really make sense to have nearly 40 teams at a track, cramming in three races in just a handful of days to make up for all the lost time? Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely pumped for on-track action to return. But what if a driver gets sick? What about Martin Truex Jr. and his girlfriend Sherry? Is he going to have to give up seeing her for months at a time now to continue racing due to her prior health issues? Are whole teams going to be wiped out because of one guy getting sick along the way, and potentially passing it on to more people? Is the risk of a potential fallout of NASCAR being the first sport to return, only to get people sick in mass, worth taking the chance at this point?

I’m glad I’m not the one making the decision and I know NASCAR has taken it’s time and done the due diligence to make this happen. But racing in front of empty grandstands in shortened one-day events just feels like a cheap way of trying to fall back in the regular routine. Fans are robbed of the full experience I got to witness at Daytona in February, and while the odds of seeing packed grandstands again this season are lower than me winning the lottery this weekend, watching a race in front of nobody feels wrong.

When NASCAR, and the rest of the sporting world gets its sanity back, fans won’t be welcome across the board. That has to happen to limit the spread as long as possible, and most reasonable people have accepted that actuality. I’m not saying that’s the issue – I’m saying that returning so soon when people can barely leave their own homes doesn’t click with me. I’ll watch the races and be so glad they’re back, but I fear for what could happen if someone does fall ill through all of this.

We need the world to go back to normal, but I just hope this doesn’t backfire on NASCAR. I hope they get this right because the last thing the sport needs is another black eye after losing one of racing’s brightest young sports to an absolutely stupid move on his part. There’s a lot to be excited about when the series returns to Darlington, including the returns of veterans Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth. So the last thing NASCAR needs is a scandal involving a mass spread of an illness that put the world and economy on edge for months just so we can go back to watching something non-essential like auto racing.

This is an opportunity to bring the sport back to the mainstream in a way we once saw before that fateful Sunday in February of 2001, so let’s hope NASCAR gets this right. I trust NASCAR is taking all the right steps to ensure safety, and as someone with friends in the garage, I hope everyone leaves the track without feeling ill.

There’s so much on the line with a return like this, so you can’t blame me for being worried.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.