Whenever the NHL and NHLPA are involved in CBA-related negotiations, the biggest hurdle to jump is always the one about money. And while the two sides agreed to a CBA extension over the summer, the economic realities of managing a business during the pandemic led the NHL to seek a renegotiation of sorts, where escrow and deferral amounts on player salaries were requested to be reconsidered.
It led to a cooling of talks between the two sides and even some pessimism they'd eventually work it out. So, when Elliotte Friedman reported on Monday that they had agreed to keep the economic framework in place, the biggest obstruction to the start of a new season was seemingly removed. Full steam ahead, right?
As with anything in this most unusual year, it’s not that straightforward.
The two sides remain in talks about how the season will take shape and there are still a number of issues to sort through, though none appear to be as big as the monetary considerations. There is generally still lots of optimism we'll get a season, with the goal now to begin on Jan. 13. That could still be delayed, though, depending on how the pandemic develops around North America in the coming weeks.
"We just never know what we're going to be able to do and not do," Friedman said on Sportsnet 590 The FAN's Hockey Central this week. "I do have some people telling me that even though they understand why the league and players are targeting Jan. 13 -- you want people in that mentality of, 'Get ready we're going to play' -- I think there are some who feel it may not happen until the beginning of February because we just might need more time. We'll see. But that's what our target is.
"The players were told last week to be prepared for the possibility of Jan. 13, so it looks like we're gonna go full steam ahead as much as we can towards that and see what curveballs COVID throws us."
The fact is, many questions remain about how this will all work. For example, some teams are in hot spots with local regulations that severely limit how many people can gather in one place, leaving it uncertain whether or not they could open training camp in their home rink, or play regular season games there when the season opens. San Jose is one such as example of this, as is Montreal. The Winnipeg Jets were in the same boat, but this week were given clearance by Manitoba’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin to open their camp at home. It's those types of situations that are ever-evolving and could further complicate matters in the coming weeks.
But there's even more to figure out between the league and its players, who are still regularly discussing a number of things they must resolve before a season is confirmed. Before anything moves ahead officially, both the players' association and BOG must vote on all aspects. Following the latest BOG call on Wednesday, another is expected some time next week.
Here are some of the more notable points still on the table.
TAXI SQUADS AND EXPANDED ROSTERS
Rosters are going to have to be larger this season. As we see the NFL and college sports leagues play without the same kind of bubble the NHL successfully implemented this past summer, a number of positive tests are complicating games and seasons. That is also the case ahead of the World Junior Championship, as a number of teams — including Canada — have had positive tests before travelling to the Edmonton bubble in a week's time. It's gotten to be so much that there is concern whether the tournament should even be able to go ahead.
Since the NHL and the players prefer to not return to a bubble for a full season, they also will have to prepare for the increased likelihood of positive tests.
On top of that, some teams will have a harder time calling players up from their AHL teams. The three Western Canadian franchises, for instance, all have American-based farm teams, so cross-border travel and quarantine requirements won't allow for short-notice recalls.
The solution may be in an expanded roster and/or taxi squad, where a few extra players are allowed to be part of the team, perhaps without being on the official roster, on call for injuries and the like. Of course, with so many teams over or right near the salary cap ceiling already, how these expanded rosters or taxi squads will function under the current financial setup is to be determined.
"There's talk right now of having rosters of 25 or 26 players, plus potentially another four players that could be part of a taxi squad," Chris Johnston reported Tuesday night.
It's possible a number of AHL players could be part of those taxi squads, the type who would be among the first call-ups when injury hits in a normal season. There's talk that, perhaps, those players would still earn their AHL salaries while on the taxi squad, but be given NHL per diem.
It's unclear what an AHL team could do if a few of its players are on a taxi squad instead of the AHL roster this season. These expanded NHL rosters could also influence what some of the next steps are for the remaining UFAs.
"They've gotta nail down these taxi squads," Friedman said. "I wouldn't be surprised if some guys who were more sort of deeper players on the roster or potential AHL/NHL guys, they wait to see what the taxi squad rules are and say, 'OK is there a situation that's better for me that I might go for because of what the taxi squad rules might be?'"
There is a lot to consider under this banner.
In the playoff bubble, players were tested daily. Two labs, one each in Toronto and Edmonton, handled the processing of those tests, and results were returned within 24 hours. With teams now spread out again in a less centralized format, it's not clear how often players will be tested, who will handle the processing, how fast those tests will be reported back, or what the protocol would be should a player return a positive. How long will they be out for? What has to happen for a game to be postponed? This is all to be determined.
Another factor is player opt-outs. For the summer playoffs, those who did not want to compete were allowed to opt-out without any financial penalty. Players will surely be allowed to opt out for the coming season if they so choose, but will they have to forfeit a portion, or all, of their salary — or will they be able to do so again without penalty?
"They're grinding away at protocols, what happens if someone tests positive? How do players who opt-out want to do so? What's the penalty, if any, in terms of financial?" Friedman said.
And how will players who do test positive be listed on the injury report? In the playoffs, all injuries were designated as "unfit to play" and, as we now know, there were no positive tests in the bubble anyway. But in the NFL this season, players who test positive are more transparently put on a reserve/COVID-19 list. How the NHL chooses to navigate this is another open question.
DIVISION REALIGNMENT, HOW IT LOOKS, AND WHAT THE PLAYOFF FORMAT IS
It's long been expected that a seven-team Canadian division would be a necessity for this season to eliminate cross-border travel and quarantine restrictions. On Tuesday, Gary Bettman all but confirmed this as a likely outcome.
"There are a lot of things we have to do to return to play," Bettman said. "For us to return to play, we're not going to play 82 games, obviously, and we have travel issues because of the restrictions at the border between Canada and the U.S. You can't go back and forth, so we're actually going to have to realign.
"If everything stays the way it is, we're probably going to have to have a Canadian division and realign in the U.S., and we're trying to focus on dealing with all of those challenges."
While time zones obviously are not a factor in creating the Canadian alignment, they will be in re-aligning the three American Divisions, though there is no perfect fit. In an effort to limit long-distance travel, teams will be pooled as geographically close as possible. As reported on Wednesday, the NHL has outlined a proposal for these American divisions, and it looks like this:
Boston-Buffalo-New Jersey-NY Islanders-NY Rangers-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington
Anaheim-Arizona-Colorado-Dallas-Los Angeles-Las Vegas-San Jose-St. Louis
Unsurprisingly, much of the Metro Division remains the same, with some alterations to make room for a couple of displaced Atlantic Division teams. Likewise, the California teams, Vegas and Arizona all stay together from the Pacific Division. But some teams, like St. Louis, are caught in the middle under this proposal. It should be noted that this is not a final decision yet and still needs to be voted on by the Board of Governors and the NHLPA. It's also believed there is some debate about St. Louis and Minnesota's placements.
Whatever this settles at, it's going to be a look unlike anything we've seen.
For now, the league is aiming for a 56-game season, though again, that could change if the start date needs to be pushed back further due to COVID-19 complications.
"I just think that we're at the mercy of so much, I bet they're modelling everything," Friedman said on Sportsnet 650 The FAN's The Program. "They're modelling 56 games on the 13th. They're modelling 48 games on Feb. 1. I'm sure they're doing all this stuff. All you can do is prepare for anything and expect anything."
It's also to be determined what this will mean for playoff formatting. If the league announces its playoff format when it finalizes details on the coming season, the most likely outcome is that four (or five if they have a play-in round again) teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs, and then play through that bracket to a semifinal. How the league proceeds from there is hard to know, and could depend on travel restrictions or government allowances at the time. Could the league leave this undefined for now, and remain more flexible to other formats months down the line?
Another open-ended question surrounds how often travel will be required within these divisions. With long-distance travel a concern, the idea has been floated that this year's schedule could look somewhat like baseball's, where a team flies into a city and plays that host multiple times before moving on. It's also not clear if the schedule will be balanced. For instance, could the Maple Leafs play the Eastern-most Canadian teams more often than the West to limit cross-country travel?
"If you're having a division where four out of seven make the playoffs, you feel you have to make it as even as possible," Friedman said. "Would it be a slight edge East-East, West-West? Yes I think so. But I also think they feel if you're in a situation where these teams are competing against each other to make the post-season it can't be incredibly unbalanced. I would also say that if COVID dictates less long-term travel for whatever reason, maybe that changes."
Built in to all the schedule considerations is a question on when the critical dates will land. Things like the trade deadline (usually end of February), free agency (usually July 1) -- when will they now fall on the 2021 calendar?
EXHIBITION GAMES AND TRAINING CAMPS
The NFL got by without any pre-season games this season, and it appears the NHL may follow suit. As Friedman reported on Monday, no exhibition games appear likely at this time.
Time is of the essence to get as many meaningful games into a regular season as possible.
"They don't want the training camps to be that long," Friedman said. "I don't think the players want it to be that long, they feel that they're in good enough shape, they've all been skating, they've all been practicing, they feel they're ready to go.
"I think the other thing too is, in a time where you're dodging COVID at every corner, you just don't want to waste time on things that don't matter," he continued. "Why add an extra trip? Why add another potential exposure? I think that's how teams look at it ... and you can't make money on exhibition games now because you can't have fans."
BUBBLE OR HUB CONTINGENCY?
As cases begin to climb in the NFL and we're seeing that league have to massage its schedule, how would the NHL handle a situation where games are forced to be postponed, given the schedule is already going to be compressed? What is Plan B in case local regulations make it harder to play in every home arena?
While the players weren't too crazy about going into a multi-month bubble again, it appears there could be a contingency plan for shorter term hubs to deal with this potential issue.
"I do think they have been looking at something," Friedman said. "What it comes down to in a lot of ways is what makes more sense financially? If it's a hub setup, the league handles a lot of those costs. If it's a team setup, the team handles a lot of those costs.
"If it's a team setup, you get your own sponsorship money back into it. If it's not a team setup there's a question of how much more do you have to pay or give back?
"It won't be a bubble, it'll be more like a hub in and out. Some of the cities that are being considered for it are New Jersey could be one, Philly could be one ... but again, depending on what the local rules are. Nashville could be one. I do think that's not preferred. The players don't want it and generally I think teams don't want it unless the costs indicate it makes sense. I think they are looking at that kind of a possibility, but as it stands right now I don't believe it's the preference."
It's also likely that the league builds some kind of buffer into its schedule to allow postponed games to be replayed at a later date.