Some of the biggest questions the NHL faces after pausing its season

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joins Hockey Central to talk about when fans can expect the return of hockey.

Sportsnet’s Rory Boylen, our NHL Editor, asked me to try and answer questions about where we are and where we’re going. Since I always do everything Rory asks, here’s my attempt:

WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN FOR THE LEAGUE TO DECIDE IT’S SAFE TO RESUME GAMES? WOULD THE LEAGUE COME BACK AND PLAY IN FRONT OF EMPTY ARENAS?

That’s impossible to know for sure, but one thing several interested parties (executives, agents, players) agree on is that you can’t have a situation where you start up again, then have to stop. You can’t resume until you have as much assurance as can possibly exist that you’re going to be able to finish.

During his Friday appearance on Hockey Central, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the season will resume “when it’s appropriate and when it’s safe so that everybody can be comfortable. (Our governments) will tell us. We’re not equipped to say the pandemic is over.”

To be perfectly honest, it could come down to how we live our lives the next few weeks. If we’re smart about cleanliness, working from home (as much as you can) and not overcrowding — especially if sick — we’ve got a better chance of a quicker recovery. Make good choices, everyone.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday the “pause” will last a minimum of 30 days. NHL players were told at least three weeks, but that’s not set in stone — more of a “don’t expect anything before that.” No professional tennis tour event will be held before April 20. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said Thursday he recommended any sporting event played in the state before May 1 have no fans in attendance, and that team owners agreed with the move.

When the NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS announced their temporary media guidelines earlier this week, it was no coincidence they did it together. They’re getting the same information and clearly are in communication with each other. Can’t imagine it would be any different when it is time to play again.

WHAT WILL THE IMPACT BE ON ESCROW AND THE SALARY CAP?

Could be substantial. Right now, the players are being paid with minimal league revenue made. Since the CBA is designed to be 50/50, their escrow — already a bone of contention — will see a significant spike if play doesn’t resume. The highest escrow rate I can remember being deducted was 22.5 per cent, around the time of the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal. One player said Friday he thought the percentage held up if there’s no more hockey would not be far from that.

As for the cap: before Wednesday, the word being floated around was $700 million in revenues at risk. As the pause was being announced, the number was $1 billion. One week after an $84-$88 million cap estimate, there is worry it will go below the $81.5 million we’re at for 2019-20. (Some teams were getting ready to present their 2020-21 ticket packages, too.)

A lower cap doesn’t just hurt the players, it hurts the teams. The NHL wouldn’t want a situation where teams had to buy out three guys to hit a lower number. At a time when CBA discussions are going on anyway, there is incentive for the NHL and NHLPA to work together on this. In 2011-12, the cap number was $64.3 million. The next season was shrunk to 48 games because of a lockout. The two sides agreed that, no matter what, 2013-14 would be back at $64.3 million. So, there’s precedent.

The pandemic has shaken economies and stoked fears of a recession. Does that change the conversation between the NHL and NHLPA, create a desire for certainty at an uncertain time?

IF THE NHL GOES RIGHT INTO THE PLAYOFFS UPON RETURNING, HOW WOULD IT DECIDE WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT? AND WHAT WOULD THE PLAYOFF FORMAT LOOK LIKE?

“We’re looking out in calendar to see what’s the last day we can be playing under scenarios and then backing up (from there),” Bettman said. “And what are our options in the time frame that’s available.

“My hope and expectation is that we can finish the season in some form (and) award the Stanley Cup.”

Bettman’s made it very clear publicly and privately the NHL will do everything humanly possible to do this.

This is purely guesswork, but a few people I talked to can’t imagine any playoffs going past July 24 — the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics. If there are playoffs, there will be Olympics.

Bettman also said the NHL is willing to be creative. So, understanding that we are painting a blank canvas that might never reach The Louvre, here are some ideas:

• The same structure we know, with teams decided via points percentage after the season was halted on Wednesday: While, at this time, I’d love to know we’d see any kind of playoffs at all, this is a terrible idea. One player, whose team would barely miss under this plan, said he and his teammates would do anything possible to block it. Besides, it is uninspiring. We can do a lot better.

• Everyone gets to 72 games and we go from there with the top eight on points. Also boring, and no guarantee there will be time for any regular season games.

• One GM suggested a March Madness-style event if we have to wait until June. I’m not crazy about single-elimination, so maybe best two-of-three — but the idea is intriguing.

• Several teams have pushed a seven-versus-10 and eight-versus-nine play-in for a couple of years, and this is a perfect opportunity to try it. Two games, total goals, back-to-back nights, the higher-seeded team getting both home games. I loved the idea until a friend reached out and said he didn’t like the total goals idea because, if one team wins the first game 5-1, the second game is useless. His suggestion: the first game is 60 minutes no matter what. If one team wins, the other must win the second game in regulation to force sudden death overtime. That way, you could see a goalie pull late in a tied Game 2 if the Game 1 loser needs to score. (If the first game is a tie, the second determines what happens.)

I like this even better. It keeps the drama in case of a Game 1 blowout.

Your 2020 playoff matchups (via points percentage) would be:

Eastern Conference

Play-ins: Florida/Carolina and Columbus/Islanders

Main Bracket: Lowest-seeded winner/Boston (as highest seed); Toronto/Tampa Bay; Highest-seeded winner/Washington; Pittsburgh/Philadelphia

Western Conference

Play-ins: Minnesota/Nashville and Winnipeg/Calgary

Main Bracket: Lowest-seeded winner/St. Louis; Dallas/Colorado; Highest-seeded winner/Vegas; Vancouver/Edmonton.

This should be the regular format, never mind for this season.

To be honest, I’d find room for Arizona and the Rangers too, because they were both within striking distance and this year should be about maximizing excitement. (I tried to include them, but 22 is not an easy number.) Anthony Stewart made a really good point, that the NHL/NHLPA would want the Rangers because they are a huge revenue team and there will be a loss to make up. If you want to get to 24, we’re talking Chicago and Montreal. I’m laughing as I type it, because I can only imagine the reaction, but it’s all about the Benjamins, ya know.

None of this even mentions a format, whether best-of-five, home games on back-to-back nights for Games 1-4, etc. Let’s go for something fun and different.

WHEN WILL PLAYERS OR TEAMS BE ALLOWED TO PRACTICE AGAIN?

For now, players have been told to go back to their in-season NHL home and stay there. No practices, nothing. “Self-quarantine,” was the phrase used in a memo sent out Friday by Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. Work out at home and not in a public gym. Rinks and practice facilities are closed, although injured players can get treatment. As the NHL indicated in its statement, it is impossible to believe every player is unaffected, so the early advice is to stay put and be smart.

(There is an exception for those recently traded. They can go to their start-of-year dwellings, although the US-Canada border is getting trickier by the day.)

You know players, though. They’re going to want to get on the ice, as soon as possible. Even if it is just in small groups to stretch their legs and fumble around with the puck. Friday’s memo discourages group skates. The hope is that can happen in seven-to-10 days, which would lead to a minicamp and then we’ll see. Pray to your deity of choice.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

IF THE NHL PLAYS INTO JULY WOULD THE FOLLOWING SEASON START LATER? AND IF SO, HOW WOULD THAT SEASON FIT INTO THE REGULAR SCHEDULE? HOW WOULD CONTRACTS THAT EXPIRE ON JULY 1 WORK? IF THE SEASON DOES GET CANCELLED OR WE JUMP RIGHT INTO THE PLAYOFFS UPON RETURN, HOW WILL THE DRAFT LOTTERY BE DONE? HOW WOULD THE DRAFT BE CONDUCTED?

The Commissioner told Jeff Marek and crew that he sees 2020-21 as no different than a regular year. I assumed if we went into July that would mean a pushback, but I guess anything could be negotiated with the players.

He also mentioned the possibility of a draft via video conference. There’s also the possibility of something smaller-scale, as was done in 2005, following the full-season lockout.

This year’s draft lottery was scheduled to be held at the NHL Network’s studios, so that should be an easier adjustment. As for how the odds would be weighed, I don’t know if they’d change from the final standings.

Free agency? You move the date. Contracts past July 1? You can always agree to extend what needs to be extended. The 2013 NHL Awards were presented during the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, with the winners interviewed during the broadcasts. Solutions can be found.

So many questions, not enough answers. All we can do is make good choices.

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