As the NHL continues to figure out its next steps amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the draft poses a particularly interesting dilemma.
At the moment, it’s not a question of where — a virtual setup, similar to what football fans will see Thursday night as the NFL conducts its entry draft, feels like the only safe solution — but the “when” is still very much in question.
The league is currently consulting with teams on the idea to go ahead with a June draft, keeping the timing of the marquee event, despite the fact that the 2019-20 season would not be complete at that point.
Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan explained on Tim & Sid Thursday that while a June draft isn’t a perfect solution, he believes it’s the best way forward.
“I would be okay with that,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but I would say this: Who knows what it’s gonna look like if we think we’re gonna do this in August, September, or October? If we’re playing hockey, if we’re finishing a Stanley Cup, if we have the hopes and anticipation of doing a quick turnaround and restarting a season.”
Holding the draft just two months from now wouldn’t have much effect on teams’ assessments of prospects, as junior leagues and major events have been cancelled already.
“I don’t think doing this in August or September is really going to change much,” said Shanahan. “We’re not going to see these young guys play any more. We’ve seen them all, we’ve got video on them all.”
There are, however, several potential complications that would need to be sorted out — most notably, the fact that the final standings (and lottery odds) would not yet be decided at that point. It also raises questions about teams’ abilities to conduct trades involving active players and about how to proceed in cases of teams holding (or owing) conditional picks based on standings or playoff results.
“It’s not ideal, we’re never gonna be in a position for this year’s draft where we’re down on the floor together and mixing and mingling and making trades and talking to one another,” Shanahan said. “So my view — and it’s just the view of the Maple Leafs, and I’ve talked to Kyle Dubas on this — is while we know what we’re doing now, which is not anything, we should get it out of the way and take care of it in June. I know other clubs and I respect that they might have a different opinion, but certainly Toronto would support the league in doing it remotely in June.”
On the topic of resuming and completing the 2019-20 season, one idea being considered is a four-city setup that would see players from each division descend upon one hub to play things out.
Shanahan believes using hub cities is “a very workable scenario.”
“I do like the idea of four hub cities, the idea of bringing each division to that hub city,” Shanahan said. “We’re not talking about doing it right now or anywhere right around the corner but when the time is safe and the proper authorities give the clearance to do so, under the right precautions I think that it is a very workable scenario.”
Reports earlier in the month suggested the league might be looking at the possibility of holding games at neutral sites, in non-NHL cities like North Dakota or New Hampshire. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Tuesday that that idea was no longer on the table, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that the use of NHL rinks would be a necessary part of the league’s ability to resume.
“We can’t play in a small college rink in the middle of a smaller community because if we’re going to be centralized, we need the back of the house that NHL arenas provide,” Bettman told Ron MacLean on In Conversation. “Whether it’s multiple locker rooms, whether it’s the technology, the procedures, the boards and glass, the video replay, the broadcasting facilities. Those are the things that are in place in NHL arenas and that’s what we’re going to ultimately need if we’re going to come back in a centralized basis and play multiple games a day.”
Shanahan said Toronto is one of the cities being considered, adding that the league is “looking at several” options.
“I think it can happen. I think that it’s highly unlikely we’ll play any part of this season — whether it’s in the summertime or early fall — in front of fans, but I still think that there’s an appetite to have games and to put them on and to make just a really fantastic TV product and get everybody feeling just a little bit back to normal,” Shanahan said. “I don’t think out first step into the ‘getting back to normal’ is going to be how we left it, but I do think that we’ve got to sort of readjust our expectations. This plan that I’ve heard, with the four hub cities, I think is a plan that can work.”