We are now closing in on the final stages of the 2020 NHL Playoffs. With two heated conference finals, the bubble games in Edmonton are nothing short of entertaining. As fun as it is to live in the moment and bask in the light of playoff hockey, you have to wonder, what is the NHL’s plan for next season? Ever since the playoffs have started, it seems as though fans have turned their attention away from the pandemic and onto the ice; but Covid-19 is still around and will certainly have a big impact on the upcoming regular season.
I was reminded of the upcoming dilemma when I read a tweet from Elliotte Friedman saying that the NHL Entry Draft start date would be moved from October 9th to October 6th, with free agency staring on that coming Friday. At first I thought this could mean an earlier initial start date for the NHL, but after further research it does not seem like the case. According to NHL Deputy Commissioner, Bill Daly, “[It is] probably less likely than more likely we would start on December 1st.” which is the initial targeted start date for the 2020-21 NHL regular season.
Another question surrounding the next regular season is how many games each team will actually play. The apparent goal is to have 82 games, but in a more condensed schedule. That would mean a lot more back-to-back games and it would increase the need for each team to acquire good backup goaltending. This scenario is most likely not going to happen. One NHL executive anticipates that there would be 60 to 65 regular season games.
One other important dilemma is if there will be fans. It is important for any sports league to have fans in the stands, but for the NHL it is even more crucial. The league obtains most of there revenue from ticket sales, as opposed to TV and advertising. There are multiple options on the table for the league to consider. Just like the bubble, the NHL can prohibit fans from coming and only allow necessary personal. However, now that a lot of leagues are starting to let limited amounts of fans into their stadiums, I would not be surprised to see spectators at the games. Some scenarios would be a progression from zero fans, transitioning to fans at 50% capacity, and then allowing fans at a 90% capacity. Another optioned I heard of was starting at zero, then move to 50%, after that progressing to 75%, and finally ending off the season with fans at 90% capacity. One out-of-the box idea that I heard of was from San Jose Sharks president, Jonathan Becker. He says that since the box suits are enclosed by glass, teams can sell them to groups or families for them to use.
However, if the NHL is using a bubble system now, can there also be one next year? If there is, do not expect the same type as the one in this years playoffs. Rumors have been floating of a four city bubble system. Each of the 31 teams will go around each bubble and play in eight game increments. The details are not specific, but at the end of the day a bubble seams unlikely. The cost of the hotels, restaurants, travel, and entertainment is very high; and if the NHL is trying to regain some profit from last year, they need to be as cost efficient as possible. The only upside I see to this system is travel, and it would also be a great way to push in all 82 games without so much fatigue on the players.
Hey, and what about the All-Star Game? As a South Floridian, I was so excited at the announcement of the All-Star Game in Sunrise, but how can they ever play something so unnecessary if the NHL has a strict time constraint? So far I have not seen any word on the matter by the NHL, but I would not be surprised if the All-Star Game was canceled. If they do decide to have an All-Star Game I would expect it to be after the 2021 postseason. The reason is because the NHL would not have to deal with finishing the season on time and I feel that the players would be fine with it because there is no playoff pressure and Florida is a great vacation spot.
The trade deadline is also an interesting piece. Its scheduled date is obviously to be determined but I would not expect them to move it that far from the usual date. It will obviously be a bit harder for teams to scout out other players, assuming scouts are not aloud at the games, and I would expect the NHL would want to limit trades as much as possible if they do not make a bubble system.
All of these factors are very important, but what is most important is the health and safety of the NHL players and staff. The coronavirus is very serious, and it would be a huge shame if a player, or a players family, gets sick. The NHL would need to take a lot of expensive procedures in order to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Items include: air filtration systems, plexiglass, sanitization, face masks, testing, and much more.
There is no doubt that there will be a 2020-21 NHL season, the question is how will it look like. Based on the job Gary Bettman and the NHL did on the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles I have pretty good confidence that the league will make the right decisions. Hopefully the NHL will keep the same level of fan experience, and, when the opportunity arises, will be ready to host fans back in arenas.
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