The reports and information about the next NHL season streamed in from the national reporters at TSN and Sportsnet after the league held calls with the NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA. The calls were to be updates and refreshers, but according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, the bubble idea may have burst.
By all accounts, the league is pushing hard to for a Jan. 1 return to play. Even as COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the world, again (even in Canada), the NHL is pushing to find a way to begin play to conclude their season before NBC switches the broadcast signal to the Olympics on July 15.
The premise for the next NHL season, which emerged from both calls, is owners and players want to play at home. No bubbles. Teams would be allowed to host fans in a limited capacity based on local and state regulations. According to Seravalli, teams would expand attendance capacity as the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more prevalent.
We’ll take it.
The world hasn’t yet caught up to an international sports league’s potential traveling across borders for a one-off game. So, the all-Canadian division with three U.S. divisions remains a central possibility as the other hopes emerge.
(If even for one year, the NHL should borrow a page from its past and rename the divisions to honor recent hockey heroes, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, and Bobby Orr. But I digress).
By other reported estimates, the NHL spent about $90 million combined on the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles to hold the NHL postseason.
As the National Hockey Now network first reported Monday evening, one sticking point is that players want to be home for the holidays and do not want a quarantined training camp over the holidays. That stipulation will make the Jan. 1 start date very difficult.
Expounding on our report, Sportsnet theorized Jan. 10 would be more appropriate.
It might seem like a long way off, but if the dates hold, that means the Pittsburgh Penguins and NHL training camps would begin in about one month and the NHL season in about six weeks.
Hockey just a month away? You’re forgiven if a tear comes to your eye.
The potentially impending training camps also mean several teams have less time to get their house in order. The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning have significant unsigned RFAs and insufficient salary cap space. New York must find a way to get top center Mathew Barzal under contract while Tampa Bay has talented center Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev unsigned.
Both teams must find salary cap space somewhere, which means other teams will need to be involved via trade. So, we may have a second wave of offseason excitement before training camp.
Top UFAs Mike Hoffman and Erik Haula are also unsigned, though as the National Hockey Now network reported, the Dallas Stars have circled back to Haula. Still, no contract has yet been signed.
However, the January start means the NHL season will likely be shortened. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has discussed a 48-62 games schedule, but those details are still sketchy.
One thing to note, by way of the flat salary cap and future concessions, the NHLPA already agreed to re-pay the owners for the financial hit to re-open the game for the 2020 NHL playoffs. The owners don’t have the authority to prorate player salaries for a shortened season but would very much want to do so. So, a shortened season will have a big hurdle to overcome.
Will owners allow a shortened season at full cost with limited fans? Seems unlikely.
Will players take a prorated portion of their salary after agreeing to a flat salary cap for several years? It seems more likely but a bitter pill to swallow for which players will likely ask for additional concessions.
NHLPA members were told the owners could ask for an increased salary deferral rather than prorated earnings.
So, buckle up. We could have more wheeling and dealing on the NHL trade market, but more importantly, we could soon have hockey.