The NHL is considering playing in short-term hubs, realigning its teams and reducing its 2020-21 schedule, commissioner Gary Bettman told NHL.com on Tuesday.
The changes would be temporary amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been speculation about all three, but Bettman discussing them publicly makes them far more likely to happen.
The changes would require input from the NHL Players’ Association. The sides agreed to a return-to-play plan and collective bargaining agreement extension over the summer that allowed the Stanley Cup to be awarded and must reach terms again before the league’s tentative Jan. 1 start date.
Short-term hubs is one idea the NHL is considering, along with letting teams play in their arenas or a hybrid format, Bettman said. The plan would be for the hubs to be less strict than they were in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, during the postseason.
Rather than having teams remain in place, they would play for 10 to 12 days in the hub and then return home for a week, Bettman said during a virtual panel at the 2020 Paley International Council Summit. This format would lower the risk of exposure for players without asking them to sacrifice as much.
Las Vegas could be a candidate to host games if the NHL decides to use hubs. It was one of 10 finalists for the 2020 playoffs and one of the last cities eliminated before Toronto and Edmonton were chosen.
It would make sense for the league to realign its setup if it plays in hubs, as the U.S.-Canadian border is closed to nonessential travel.
That could lead to a seven-team all-Canadian division, something Golden Knights owner Bill Foley hinted at during a radio appearance last month. The NHL then could arrange the 24 U.S. franchises into three eight-team divisions.
Bettman has said that the league will play a full 82-game regular season in 2020-21, but shortening the schedule would make sense on numerous levels. It would allow the NHL to get closer to its normal October to June playing calendar in 2021-22. It also could help the league award the Stanley Cup before its national U.S. TV partner, NBC, starts broadcasting the Olympics on July 23. And it would give its 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken, plenty of time to prepare for the expansion draft next offseason.
A key question if the NHL shortens its season will be if players’ salaries are reduced. The players made financial concessions in the CBA extension that included a flat cap this offseason and a 10 percent salary deferral this upcoming year. Would they accept prorated pay based on the number of games played? Or would they insist on full pay?
“It’s undeniable that it would be a huge breaking point,” Vancouver Canucks forward Antoine Roussel said in October. “We negotiated heartily and fairly with everyone. If the NHL comes to us with a prorated approach, it would be like lying to us. And I think all NHL players agree on that point.”