Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL managed to put together a full 2020 post-season, complete with an extra round and exactly zero positive test results once teams were corralled into its Toronto and Edmonton bubbles.
But with the 2020 trophy claimed and awarded, the focus now shifts to what exactly the league’s 2020-21 campaign will look like.
On Wednesday, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley shared his thoughts on how the pandemic could affect the coming season, joining the ‘Vegas Hockey Hotline’ show on local radio station KSHP.
Key among those thoughts was his answer to a question about Nate Schmidt, the former Golden Knight recently traded to the Pacific Division rival Vancouver Canucks.
Asked about the prospect of his Golden Knights frequently facing Schmidt as a Canuck next season, Foley replied, “Yeah, but they’re going to be playing in the Canadian division this year.”
Rumours of the league’s seven Canadian franchises potentially re-aligning to form one division up north have circulated as of late due to the continued closure of the Canada–U.S. border during the pandemic.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman touched on the possibility in late August, writing this in his 31 Thoughts column:
“I don’t believe there will a bubble (or bubbles) next season. The players won’t want it, and, quite frankly, neither will the owners. They’ll want a path towards attendance and will wait as long as possible to try and see one. I do think one season of regionalized travel is possible, with teams playing back-to-backs in one city. Yes, that could mean a Canadian division, for one year only.”
Foley discussed the border issues on Wednesday as well, speculating on whether the league will be able to have teams crossing the border by the time the 2020-21 season begins.
“It is a big deal. I don’t think that border’s going to be open before January 1st, if it’s open January 1st. I really don’t,” the Golden Knights owner said. “Because Canada’s going through — they’ve got spikes going on and they’re starting to lock down again. Winnipeg’s locking down. Quebec has got spikes going on. So, you know, I think they’re going to play a Canadian division. I don’t think they’re going to be crossing the border.”
Foley touched on the league’s targeted start date as well. Earlier this month, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league and the NHLPA are looking at Jan. 1 as the potential start date for the coming season.
The Golden Knights owner said he isn’t convinced the NHL will be up and running that soon, particularly because of the issue of whether fans could be allowed to attend games by then.
“If we’re not playing in front of fans, I don’t know how a lot of teams can make it — including us. It’s going to be very difficult,” Foley said. “You’ve got to make a serious financial commitment to fund the team if we’re not playing in front of fans. I believe Gary Bettman’s not going to be having us fly all around and play in empty arenas. It’s going to be another plan.”
“He’s talking about January 1st, I don’t know. Maybe February 1st. Maybe an abbreviated season, and an accelerated season.”
The potential for an accelerated season was one factor in the club opting to keep both Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner this off-season, according to Foley, even with the two netminders combining for a $12-million cap hit in 2020-21.
“It’s one reason why I was really in favour of keeping both goalies — I really felt like we’re going to be playing four games in seven nights every week. There’s going to be a back-to-back almost every week,” he said. “…So I was always working to keep those two goalies in town.”
The Golden Knights earned a trip to the Western Conference Final this post-season for the second time in their three years of existence, eventually falling to the Dallas Stars in five games.
Fresh off signing the top free agent on the market in the off-season, defender Alex Pietrangelo, Foley’s club is set to enter 2020-21 as a likely contender once again.