Thoughts on what looks like the plan for a 2020-21 NHL season

NHL insider Chris Johnston joined Sportsnet Central to discuss agent Allan Walsh's comments about the upcoming NHL season and the uncertainty of when it might begin.

When reading anything written by NHL insiders these days, I’m encouraged by one thing above all: I can’t find a single one who’s hinting at hockey not being played this upcoming season. Usually even if it’s the faintest whiff of a chance, someone will dangle it out there to cover their bases in case that reality comes to fruition. To a person right now they all say “everyone wants to play, it’s just a matter of getting over this hurdle.”

Here’s how our own Elliotte Friedman phrased it yesterday in his “quickie blog” on the state of NHL/PA affairs:

What I don’t believe is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr are playing the roles of Thelma & Louise, accelerating their convertible off the cliff. You cover sports long enough, you know when strikes and lockouts are a strategy. It was for the players in 1992; the league in 1994, 2004 and 2012.

This is not the same.

The players want to play. Several governors on last week’s call with the NHL said Bettman wants to play and made it very clear he wants to make it happen as soon as New Year’s Day.

And so, let’s imagine that they get over the hurdle safely, shall we?

With feet safely on the other side of it, you’ll note that we’d almost immediately be into the home stretch sprint, particularly with seven teams being granted an extra week of training camp. Do the math on a Jan. 1 start or thereabouts, subtract two weeks for training camp and another week for those seven teams, and somewhere between 20-25 per cent of NHLers will return to their teams for league-sanctioned action somewhere around Dec. 10th.

This, you may note, is like three weeks from now. Using our “pandemic time” to “normal time” conversion rate that’s still about 6,000 years, but hey, it could be worse.

Let’s go back to Friedman’s quickie blog to pick apart the paragraphs on the NHL’s structure when it returns in the weeks ahead. Not if. Emphasis mine, of course.

From Friedman:

There is a 60-game schedule in place — division-only play (Canadian Division, too), in your own arenas, baseball-style back-to-backs in the same venues, at least a week between the end of the season and the playoffs to allow for make-up games, playoffs start by mid-May and end by July 15.

(If I was a player, I might demand expanded playoffs in exchange for accepting any alterations to the agreement. It’s time and wouldn’t it increase revenues?)

…There is a 60-game schedule in place…

If you’re going to have a shortened season, baseline season integrity starts at that number for me. Your mileage may vary on that feeling, but look at the last full season we had, 2018-19. It was almost exactly around the 60th game when the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues poked their head into the Western Conference playoff picture. Go back just two weeks prior and there were only two teams beneath them in the Western Conference standings.

If you run a 48-game season, random events carry outsized weight and we don’t get an accurate assessment of how good teams really are. And let’s remember, “random events” is what comes up if you highlight the word hockey on your computer and click “look up.” Injuries are overly punitive, and there’s too little chance to change track if your team starts on a bad one.

So, 60 games. Not perfect, but I think enough action to reasonably tease out the good teams from the un-good.

…division-only play…

Most of the reason the league bothers with making sure every team plays each other is simply so no fanbase gets denied seeing each star player at least once a season. If we aren’t worried about fans right now, that becomes a non-issue.

Combined with the express goal of minimizing mingling between different groups, this is a no-brainer.

…(Canadian Division, too)…

Not in doubt at this point. It does feel a little bit cruel, creating this at a time when buildings can’t be packed. But I do expect the action on the ol’ interwebs, where I spend most of my time anyway, to be fairly lively with this development.

Here are the current odds to win the Stanley Cup, as listed on Coolbet:

(Odds listed as “bet $100 to win”…)

Toronto: +1700
Calgary: +2400
Edmonton: +2400
Vancouver: +3900
Montreal: +3900
Winnipeg: +4900
Ottawa: +14900

Calgary and Edmonton have even odds, Vancouver and Montreal too. I can’t imagine Canucks fans are going to love that.

…in your own arenas…

There are just so, so many reasons for the league and teams and players to want this. It’s just a matter of if it’s aligned with reality or not. I’ll hazard a guess that it won’t come without some COVID cases, but along the way, the gains would be:

• NHL arena naming rights honoured (and teams like money)

• Sponsorship deals (like board ads) honoured (and teams like money)

• Players not confined to a bubble (and many seem to like humans aside from their teammates, so that’s a plus)

• Comforts of your team’s facilities (generally preferred to slapdash temporary spaces, or overloading one team’s permanent facilities)

• Puck drop start times can overlap (meaning no mid-week noon puck drops, which rightsholders don’t love)

You could go on here. This may not be the most prudent option from a health standpoint, but I believe the league thinks it can take as many safety precautions as possible in these different buildings and at least get through to the release of a vaccine with minimal damage. Fingers crossed they’re right.

…baseball-style back-to-backs in the same venues…

My money is on this becoming a permanent feature of the NHL calendar. For one, the second game of back-to-backs can be a lot of fun if animosity builds from the first one. But also – and this is something Brian Burke has illuminated numerous times on Hockey Central – travel costs a fortune in the NHL and leaves a terrible environmental footprint. If there’s a way to cut down on travel costs (probably the owners’ first priority if we’re being real) and do better for the environment in the process, you’d have to think the league would consider adding this as a more permanent feature.

It isn’t ideal for season ticket holders, I get that. More variety is preferred. But y’know, life stuff, people.

…at least a week between the end of the season and the playoffs to allow for make-up games…

Here’s to hoping that’s enough, cause COVID is still a very real thing.

…playoffs start by mid-May and end by July 15…

What’s super appealing here is the season ending in mid-July, then ramping back up again on a normal schedule, meaning a short off-season for hockey fans. That may be less ideal for players, but there’s really little that can be done for them there. So, we’ll stick to focusing on the bright side.

And finally,

…(If I was a player, I might demand expanded playoffs in exchange for accepting any alterations to the agreement. It’s time and wouldn’t it increase revenues?)…

I know Gary Bettman doesn’t love the expanded playoffs thing, but with 32 teams in the league beginning next year, and those finishing in the 14-18 standings spots being virtually interchangeable, I’m a proponent of this in a small way.

In divisional playoffs for this season, I’d like best-of-3s between the 4 and 5 seeds. Home ice advantage for every game goes to the 4 seed in my format. (And if the fourth seed leads the fifth seed by six points -- three wins -- in the regular season standings, they should scrap the play-in.)

All of this is contingent on the part I mentioned off the top: that the NHL and NHLPA resolve their financial issues quickly, and we get hockey at all this upcoming season. But as of now I’m casting doubt aside, and believing they’ll find a way.

And whenever they do, it should be a lot of fun.

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