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NHL has more questions than answers about 2020-21 season

Updated October 31, 2020 - 3:50 pm

The Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup more than a month ago.

Since then, there’s been nary an update about when the NHL will play again. Sure, the league pushed back the tentative start date for next season from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1. But even that date is just a target, and there’s been no word on when training camps would start if that ends up being the day.

It’s put everyone in the hockey world in a holding pattern.

“Honestly, at this point, you just have to take it week by week,” Golden Knights forward Reid Duke said Wednesday. “It’s a weird situation that no one’s ever gone through, so you just want to stay ready, stay busy, stay in shape. It’s been such a weird year, and it’s dragging on a bit so it’s just making everyone a little bit more excited to get things going.”

Answers still might be a ways away. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email two weeks ago the league was “still in very preliminary stages” of planning. In that time, the NHL and the players association’s return-to-play committee haven’t met to discuss what they’ll need to work through before next season starts. The first meeting probably will take place this week.

When talks do happen, there will be a lot to sort through. Here are three key issues surrounding the league’s potential return:

1. Timing

One of the first steps will be deciding when everything ramps up again. And just as important, the NHL will need to figure out when next season will end.

The league is already a ways off from its normal October to June playing calendar. It will need to decide how much it wants to course-correct and what sacrifices it can live with to make that happen.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said before the Stanley Cup Final he anticipated playing a full 82-game regular season, but added that he preferred “to stay out of summer as much as possible.” Something has to give.

Complicating factors include the NHL’s relationship with NBC and the incoming Seattle franchise. NBC, the league’s national U.S. broadcast partner, has the rights to the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The Games begin July 23, and it might be in the best interest of all parties to avoid a conflict.

That’s one reason Knights owner Bill Foley said in early October that Feb. 1 could be a realistic start date for a 48- or 56-game season that could end before the Olympics.

It also will be important to the NHL to get the Seattle Kraken, who are to begin play in 2021-22, off on the right foot. They and other teams will need time to get prepared for the 2021 expansion draft, which will be the marquee event of next offseason.

2. Money, money, money

The NHL returned to play this summer in part because the league and players agreed to a collective bargaining agreement extension that provided both sides with financial assurances during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hope was the unique circumstances could help the parties create long-term labor peace. It might end up being short-lived.

If playing 82 games becomes challenging, the two sides will need to agree on players’ salaries in a shortened season. Would they still receive their full paychecks or would their pay be prorated based on the number of games played?

It could end up being a major point of contention for both sides, much like it was for Major League Baseball when it was negotiating with its players this summer.

“It’s undeniable, it would be a huge breaking point,” Vancouver Canucks forward Antoine Roussel said in a French-language interview with TVA Sports. “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.”

3. Where … and how?

The two sides also must decide where games will be played and the format of the season.

MLB put together a regional schedule for its teams this past season featuring mainly divisional games. The NHL could look to do the same to minimize travel, and Foley let it slip that the league is considering an all-Canadian division because of border restrictions.

Then there’s the matter of where the games will be played. The postseason took place in two hubs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to limit exposure to COVID-19. The NHL could try to set up regional bubbles to start the season, and Las Vegas might be a candidate in that scenario after almost being a hub city in the summer.

But going back to bubbles might be a tough sell for players, depending on how long they’re asked to go away.

Leaving their families and friends to chase a Stanley Cup is one thing. Isolating for regular-season points is a lot less appealing.

“Hopefully we don’t have to go through another scenario like that and go back to the regular playoff format,” Knights right wing Reilly Smith said after returning home.

Trying to play in home markets would come with its own set of complications, especially when it comes to the question of fans. There are different rules and regulations in each state. In Nevada, facilities with a capacity of greater than 2,500 are allowed to host 10 percent of their total capacity, and Foley said he expects to meet with Gov. Steve Sisolak to discuss the matter.

Foley said T-Mobile Arena would need to be 40 percent full to be economically viable. Other teams probably are facing similar projections, and making the money work while prioritizing safety could prove difficult.

The long list of topics illustrates just how difficult it will be for the NHL to balance all the different issues it’s facing when planning next season. It’s why many in the sport have few answers, and they’re being forced to navigate the offseason without them.

“You just stick to your normal routine,” Knights forward Gage Quinney said. “I haven’t changed anything. Just the date keeps changing. Just got to adapt and keep going.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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