While nothing is set in stone about the forthcoming NHL season, the makings of a season format seem to be falling into place. Yesterday’s news that the league is targeting a January 15 start and a 56-game schedule provided some optimism that firm numbers may be coming into focus and the reality of a 2020-21 with it. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston have followed up that report with some speculative notes on how training camp, the regular season, and the postseason could play out. They have heard that a January 15 start date would mean that the seven non-playoff teams from 2019-20 would open camp on December 28, while the other 24 teams would start up on January 1. This isn’t exactly the extended camp that the non-playoff teams had hoped for, but with the Christmas holiday also playing a key role in negotiations from the players’ side, there is little wiggle room between starting after December 25 and allowing all teams enough time for a sufficient camp prior to January 15. Friedman and Johnston believe that a January 15 start and 56-game schedule would result in a May 1 end to the regular season, with room to make up games if needed. The postseason would then run through the first week of July, again with some flexibility for make-up delays before a likely late July Entry Draft and Expansion Draft and August 1 start to the new league year and free agency. None of these dates are official of course, but they do report that some players and teams have been notified that they should expect a January 15 start date and to be back in North America and in quarantine this month. As for the actual structure of the league and of travel and game play this season, temporary realignment seems very likely, especially if it will allow teams to play in their home cities and arenas, which is the preference of players and clubs alike. However, the concept of bubbles or hub cities is still very much on the table if that is the only way to ensure the safety of all players and staff. Friedman and Johnston also note that there is some optimism that with this delayed start to the season and the progress being made on a COVID-19 vaccine that there could be fans in attendance, regardless of the format, by the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.
- While everyone is hopeful that these plans work out and are excited for the return of NHL hockey, don’t expect to see any game action until the actual anticipated regular season start date of January 15. Friedman and Johnston report that there will not likely be exhibition “pre-season” games during training camp. This can likely be explained by a hesitancy to potentially expose players and personnel to COVID for a meaningless game. Although starting the season cold will be difficult, it is a a safer option. Teams will have to rely on inter-squad scrimmages for preparation.
- While logistics coming together for this coming season, with agreement on both sides, is great to see, there is still a financial negotiation going on as well. The owners are hoping to adjust the values of salary deferral and escrow just recently agreed upon in the CBA extension, but so far the players have been resistant to any change. The Philadelphia Flyers’ James van Riemsdyk, the team’s NHLPA rep, tells The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi that the players feel the impact of the Coronavirus on 2020-21 profits was fully considered when the CBA was agreed upon and the players do not feel that they owe the owners any more than they have already relinquished. This is a sentiment that has been echoed by many when it comes to the league’s proposal of financial changes. On a positive note, van Riemsdyk says that the players are happy with their side of the CBA and like what they have heard so far about a “return to play” plan. He states that the players are “ready to roll” with the new season once the owners agree to uphold the CBA.
- While the NHL is doing their best to combat COVID and get back to play, the virus continues to impact every corner of the hockey world. Leagues and teams on multiple continents have paused their seasons, players, coaches, and staff have been infected, and opportunities to watch and play the game have been few and far between with restrictions on facilities and group gatherings. The latest newsworthy COVID impact comes out of Sweden. European hockey insider Uffe Bodin reports that 2021 draft prospect William Eklund has tested positive for the virus and as a result may not participate in the upcoming World Junior Championship in Edmonton. Eklund is considered by many to be a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft, which has been helped along by a breakout season in the SHL. His absence will be a major loss for Team Sweden and will also be a missed opportunity for NHL scouts. The talented forward will simply have to work to get healthy and continue to show what he can do in the SHL this year.