Just when you thought the NHL was out of the COVID-19 woods came the news Friday that Montreal Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme had tested positive and would be sidelined indefinitely.

Assistant Luke Richardson assumed Ducharme’s duties ahead of his team’s critical Game 3. Clearly, the primary concern is with Ducharme’s health, and he told reporters via a weekend Zoom call from his home that he feels no differently than usual. But it’s just another reminder of how unusual this season has been, the impact of the Canadian presence within it and the unbalanced nature of these playoffs.

Montreal won Game 3 under Richardson, 3-2 in overtime, in front of a home crowd limited to 3,500 fans in an arena with a capacity near 21,000, compared with the increasingly full houses seen south of the border. The Canadiens, outplayed most of the night and outshot by a 2-to-1 margin in regulation, led the series against Vegas 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday.

Canadian vaccination rates were slowed by a lack of vaccine production there. Ducharme had received his second vaccination injection June 9, so he wasn’t yet outside the two-week window to be considered fully vaccinated. The question now is whether he’ll isolate a full 14 days, or be allowed back to begin the Stanley Cup finals if his underdog team makes it there.

On to your mailbag questions.

Question: @JUNEnGOOSE asked: Will we go after a sign and trade player.

Answer: Sure, I can see the Kraken doing that given it expects to be a player in free agency. Also — according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun — the Kraken has been given permission to offer eight-year maximum contracts to players claimed in the July 21 expansion draft or acquired beforehand. Typically, teams can offer only seven-year deals unless re-signing their own players — in which case eight years is allowed.

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So if you’re a player hitting free agency, signing with the Kraken during its exclusive 72-hour predraft negotiation window or in the week following the draft could garner an extra year’s contract length. Once the free-agency period opens July 28, offers can go up to only seven years. 

So, let’s look at Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, a valued right-handed shot and power-play-unit quarterback. There’s debate as to whether the Hurricanes can afford his expected $8 million-plus annual asking price, but the Kraken might pay that and can match the length of any Carolina offer as well.

So there’s danger the Kraken could pry Hamilton away during its predraft negotiation window with free agents. The Hurricanes could offset this by protecting him in the draft, but then they’d leave another player vulnerable and still risk losing Hamilton to free agency a week later if he remains unsigned.

Still, if he’s protected by the Hurricanes, the Kraken loses its exclusive negotiation window with him and ability to offer eight years instead of seven. Remember, the eight-year advantage for the Kraken expires once the expansion draft ends. The Hurricanes could then at least try to keep him with an eight-year deal instead of the seven that the Kraken and everyone else would by then be limited to.

So there’s leverage and negotiating potential on both sides for a sign-and-trade scenario.

If the Hurricanes feel they can’t keep Hamilton, a sign-and-trade deal would allow them to at least recover some assets. Worth noting is the Hurricanes this past week gave Hamilton permission to start speaking to other teams well ahead of the free-agency period.

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If Hamilton can nail down terms of a deal, he can take it back to the Hurricanes. Carolina could then, if Hamilton agrees, do an eight-year contract extension and trade him to one of his interested suitors — with Hamilton getting an eighth year instead of just seven that other team is limited in offering. And the Hurricanes could gain players and/or draft picks from that team for putting the whole thing together.

Obviously, it isn’t just the Kraken the Hurricanes could do a sign-and-trade deal with, and there’d be plenty of suitors. The Kraken doesn’t have existing NHL players to offer but does have draft choices and will likely gain more of those and players through predraft side deals with other teams.

Not every player is going to be worth an eight-year deal. Left wing Taylor Hall of the Boston Bruins is another free agent the Kraken could take a run at with a max contract. So the Bruins could try to do a predraft sign-and-trade deal with the Kraken as well.

Q: @Redda17 asked: What do you expect the 2022 playoff pairing/seeding process to look like? I understand that NHL playoffs typically are not as straightforward as 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, and there may be a geographic hook to it? Thanks (lots of soon too be NHL fans out here)

A: The hope is for things to revert to the usual, conference-based playoff format last used in 2018-19. It features four best-of-seven rounds and is based off the usual Pacific and Central divisions in the Western Conference and the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions in the Eastern Conference.

Each division has eight teams for 32 overall, and 16 make the playoffs.

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The top three teams from each division get automatic playoff berths, with the remaining four spots going to two wild-card teams in each conference with the next most overall points — eight playoff teams in each conference. Opening-round play sees the division winner with the best record play the lower seeded wild-card team from that conference while the second-best division winner faces the other wild-card squad.

The second- and third-place teams in each division also face each other in a playoff bracket headed by their division winners.

Round 2 then features first-round winners within each bracket playing each other for the right to go to the conference final. From there, it’s the bracket winners squaring off in Round 3 and then the conference champions playing in the Stanley Cup Final.

In the first two rounds, home-ice advantage goes to the team that finished higher in the standings. For the final two rounds, it’s the team with the better regular-season record.

Q: @kv_8r asked: Where will Kraken preseason games be played if Climate Pledge isn’t ready for them?

A: That’s a great question, as the team has said the arena won’t be done until October and still hasn’t pinpointed a more specific date. Clearly, that leaves the location of preseason games in question if the league sticks with a projected Oct. 12 regular-season opening.

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Kraken assistant GM Ricky Olczyk is working to line up preseason opponents and determine the best course. The league is awaiting Canadian government decisions on reopening the border and allowing full capacity at games before making any official decision on the 2021-22 season timeline. The Kraken would like some preseason games against nearby Canadian squads, so the border rules impact that.

So until we know when next season will begin, the status of when and where preseason games will occur remains up in the air.

Now, if Climate Pledge Arena isn’t ready for preseason games, that’s an issue because the Kraken has sold thousands of season-ticket packages that include three preseason contests. So you have to accommodate those fans. Angel of the Winds arena in Everett holds about 10,000, and the ShoWare Center in Kent can fit roughly 6,500.

The team has held discussions with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds about growing the game statewide and possibly staging future games, but nothing concrete has been proposed. So there’s at least a foundation to ask for arena usage. The WNBA’s Storm is using Angel of the Winds as its temporary home because Climate Pledge isn’t ready.

A Kraken spokesperson told me the team will “do right” by season-ticket holders whatever the eventual outcome. My guess is the Kraken won’t play in alternate arenas. If Climate Pledge needs more time, then either the league will push back its projected season start — for now, it has committed only to an “October” opening — or the Kraken will play exhibitions on the road.

Remember, that’s my guess. Not an official team stance.

We should have more NHL clarity once the playoffs are done next month. But the projected regular-season start is only four months away — tough to believe! — so yours is a good, timely question with no definitive answer.