It's been almost a week since the NHL paused its schedule due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) throughout North America. As the league ponders its next steps, fans and pundits are wondering about the fate of the remaining schedule and the playoffs.
Based on the recommendation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a 60-day shutdown of large events involving more than 50 people, The Hockey News' Jared Clinton believes it'll be mid-May at the earliest before the NHL returns to action. On Monday, the league indicated it hopes to open a training-camp period 45 days into the period covered by the CDC's directive. TSN's Gino Reda reported the league is eyeing a return to action as early as May 15.
Using that as it’s current guideline, understanding that the situation may well change before then, the NHL is moving forward with a plan that could see them open camps as soon as April 29th.
That could be followed by a 15 day camp, & games could begin by the middle of May.
— Gino Reda (@GinoRedaTSN) March 16, 2020
What that means for the remainder of the NHL's regular-season schedule has yet to be determined. The NHL last week released a statement of its intent to resume the schedule as soon as possible, hoping to complete the season and crown a Stanley Cup champion. Each club was also reportedly asked to determine availability in their home arena through late July.
Returning to action in mid-May also raises questions over what the season will look like. Completing the remaining games could result in a compressed timetable involving numerous back-to-back contests. Even with a two-week training camp, that demanding schedule could take a physical toll upon players emerging from a lengthy layoff.
If playing out the remaining schedule isn't feasible, perhaps a shortened “play-in” will be staged to allow clubs jockeying for wild-card berth an opportunity to clinch post-season berths. A rumored option would involve a 24-team playoff format involving an equal number of participants from each conference.
Failing that, the league could be forced to scrap the regular season and start the playoffs based on the current standings. A full playoff schedule of four best-of-seven rounds could see the Stanley Cup awarded by late July.
One pressing factor will be the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo from July 24 to Aug. 6. The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun believes the last thing the league wants is to have the Stanley Cup Final staged at the same time. That could mean setting July 23 as the final date for the playoffs' completion.
Pushing ahead the schedule will also affect the NHL's off-season timetable. The 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, set for Apr. 9, must be pushed forward by two months. The annual Draft Combine in Buffalo (June 1-6) and the draft in Montreal (June 26-27) will also be rescheduled. The latter could become a stripped-down affair similar to the 2005 NHL Draft following a season-killing lockout.
The annual July 1 start to the free-agency period will also be pushed forward, perhaps to Aug. 1. Players slated to become restricted or unrestricted free agents on teams participating in the playoffs at that point could see their contracts extended for a month by mutual consent between the league and the NHL Players' Association.
Ensuring this season ends with a Stanley Cup champion isn't the only consideration behind the league's determination to resume the season. Among North America's major professional sports leagues, the NHL is the most reliant on gate revenue. The Athletic's Scott Powers and Mark Lazerus reported commissioner Gary Bettman informed the league's board of governors that canceling the season would result in $1 billion in lost revenue.
With the salary cap tied to hockey-related revenue, the recent projections of next season's cap reaching between $84 million and $88 million seem unreachable now. Even if the league finishes the season with a truncated schedule, the loss of revenue might push the salary cap below the current $81.5 million.
That would create a serious salary-cap nightmare for several NHL clubs, potentially forcing them to gut their rosters with cost-cutting trades and contract buyouts. However, LeBrun cited multiple sources claiming the league and the PA wouldn't allow that to happen. He believes both sides would agree in this exceptional circumstance to an artificial cap for next season that would satisfy all sides.
There is a precedent for this. Following the 2012-13 lockout, they agreed to set the cap for the following season at the same number ($64.3 million) as it was in 2011-12. Perhaps they'll do the same this time around and keep the cap at $81.5 million. Nevertheless, the New York Post's Larry Brooks feels a flat cap could still hurt several clubs. He speculates the NHL and the NHLPA could implement amnesty buyouts that wouldn't count against a club's cap payroll.
For now, the rest of this NHL season remains at the mercy of the pandemic. It'll be several weeks before the fate of the 2020-'21 campaign becomes clearer.