NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Saturday he wouldn't be surprised if next season starts later in December or in January 2021.
Speaking at his annual state of the league address ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Bettman said the NHL had begun "informally thinking" about options for the 2020-21 season but no definitive decisions had been made due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Dec. 1 has always been a notional date. I will not be surprised if it slips into later December, could slip into January," Bettman said. "But there's no point right now in making any definitive comments on our plans because there's still too much we don't know.
"We're going to have to do the same thing we did to get ready for the return to play: explore all the options, be flexible and agile enough to implement when the appropriate time comes."
When the league announced its return-to-play plan for the 2019-20 season in July, a tentative start date of Dec. 1 for the 2020-21 campaign was a part of the announcement. However, there are still many unknowns surrounding how the league can return after completing the post-season in the Edmonton bubble, including the state of the U.S.-Canada border – an aspect of particular importance to the NHL given its seven teams north of the border.
Bettman did say he anticipated playing a full season in 2020-21, including an 82-game campaign plus playoffs, and that "his preference would be to stay out of summer as much as possible."
Another one of the many uncertainties is whether the league will be permitted to allow fans, as has been allowed in some European soccer leagues and NFL stadiums. While Bettman reiterated it's too early to say what next season will look like, he did speculate that the campaign could unfold in phases.
"How we start doesn't necessarily relate to how we're going to finish," Bettman said in regard to fans in NHL arenas. "So if we're going to speculate – and this is pure speculation, I'm just throwing it out there as a random thought – it's conceivable that we start without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point and by some point in time maybe our buildings are open."
The Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning is scheduled to wrap up by Sept. 30. The NHL off-season will then immediately get underway with the 2020 draft set to take place virtually from Oct. 6-7 and the opening of free agency to follow on Oct. 9.