The NHL's coronavirus pause: League memo makes early-June draft case; return-to-play talk continues

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, May 4, 2020

It has been 53 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 seasonbecause of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continue, there have also been continuous nuggets of new information being provided regarding the potential resumption of the season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all impacts 2020-21.

As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every Monday, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL's relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week's update. Get caught up here:

Has there been an update on when play could resume?

Emily Kaplan: According to commissioner Gary Bettman, the NHL is still in "take things one step at a time mode," meaning the league isn't assigning deadlines on anything yet.

"We have a great deal of flexibility in terms of when we can start," Bettman said in an interview with NHL Network on Thursday. "There's no magic for next season of starting in October as we traditionally do. If we have to start in November or December, that's something that will be under consideration. We're going to try to make good, prudent, careful judgments. This isn't a race to be first back."

Beginning the 2020-21 season in December may seem startling -- especially if the league is insistent on having an 82-game slate -- but it's a reality the NHL must face. The league will have to evaluate all options, including canceling the All-Star Game or five-day breaks next season.

In the meantime, the league is doing everything it can to salvage the 2019-20 campaign, which could recoup about half of the projected $1 billion in revenue the NHL is losing.

In an interview with TSN radio this week, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly remained hopeful the league could resume play, while outlining some of the obstacles. "We've seen positive signs in the last month in terms of the curve flattening and going in the right direction in most if not all of our markets, and really across North America," Daly said. "But the virus is real. The virus remains. And there remains no vaccine for the virus. There continue to be testing shortages, and testing is critical for the return of any major league sports. But it's a rapidly changing situation, especially on the testing side."

The newly formed NHL/NHLPA Return to Play Committee, which includes Connor McDavid, John Tavares and Mark Scheifele, is convening regularly (virtually, of course) to hash out the finer details.

Players have been self-isolating for the past seven weeks, which has been called Phase 1 of the NHL's return to play plan. All sides are now looking at Phase 2, though they are cognizant of the hurdles. For example, on Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the idea of players traveling across the border.

"At a strict minimum, anyone who arrives from another country will have to follow all the rules of quarantine in an extremely strict manner," Trudeau said. "But we're not there yet in our discussions with the NHL."

So what is Phase 2?

Greg Wyshynski: In a memo to teams last week, the NHL and the NHLPA reported that while no exact date or timeline has been established, they are looking ahead to Phase 2 of their transition period. Phase 1 involved self-quarantine for players and hockey staff. Phase 2 involves players returning to NHL training facilities for "small group activities."

"We are not targeting a specific date at this point in time," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN via email. "We are hoping for some point in the latter half of May. Remains to be seen."

Sources told ESPN there could be restrictions on players returning to the ice because of that. Under one plan, they would be allowed to train at the facilities, but not to skate.

"No one would be allowed to skate in any of the facilities, and if any teams allow players on the ice, they would be subject to a fine," a source on the players' side told ESPN. "There are certain facilities that would not be able to open due to local stay-at-home orders, and that would give certain teams an unfair competitive advantage."

There have also been discussions about players returning to the ice, but limiting the size of groups in practice sessions, which is something European soccer leagues have done as they attempt to return from paused seasons. One source said "groups of six at a time" was under consideration.

According to Daly, the NHL is "still debating the equitable access to team facilities point" and that no decisions have yet been made.

Any update to which NHL arenas/cities are in play?

Wyshynski: It's expected the list of host teams will be vetted this week during an NHL meeting. The league had its eye on some sites, while others have made "bids" to the league.

"One of the things we've considered are centralized locations, bringing clubs in for regular season, playoff games or both, and limiting the number of those centralized locations, because that's the purpose of it," Daly said in his TSN interview. "Another box on the checklist that you have to check is, is it supported by kind of the local health authorities? Is this something that the community welcomes and thinks would be a positive in recovering from what we're going through now?"

A major consideration for the NHL in a summer restart: The availability of testing for COVID-19, and ensuring that the league isn't taking away vital assets from a community. "We're going to need to have access to testing, and we're going to make it a point that we're not accessing testing, even in a private way, if testing availability is an issue in the community. We will not test asymptomatic players ahead of symptomatic people who are unable to get testing. It's just something we will not do," Daly told CHED.

Among the arenas in the mix for the summertime restart games are the homes to the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights.

The league has some basic criteria for potential sites. Among them are: Four professional-level locker rooms; hotels within the area that are up to players' standards; a practice facility, preferably attached to the arena, that teams can use when they're not playing.

The NHL has yet to commit to the four arena sites being aligned by division.

For the players, what's the main concern about this setup?

Wyshynski: The players have indicated a hesitancy about being away from their families for a prolonged period of time during a global pandemic. "I think guys want to be with their families at this time, so it would be tough to tear guys away from their families," said Bruins defenseman Torey Krug last week.

As the NHL considers its plans for a restart, it's taking that under consideration. "The family scenario is a fair one. I'm not sure that this fix is a feasible fix. But there can be other fixes," said Daly to CHED. "What we've made clear to players is that we understand the issue. We don't intend them to be isolated and away from their families for a two-, three- or four-month period of time. We understand the importance of family interaction. We'll find a way to accommodate that."

Will playing regular-season games at these sites satisfy the financial obligations for teams?

Wyshynski: In theory, yes.

One of the main catalysts for the NHL's desire to complete the regular season are the regional TV deals whose conditions haven't been met thanks to the season's pause. For example, TSN host Matthew Sekeres noted that the 12 U.S.-based teams with Fox Sports regional deals could see those deals "roll over to next season at no cost to Fox," essentially meaning those teams "would face no regional TV revenue." The affected teams: The Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Panthers, Lightning, Ducks, Coyotes, Stars, Kings, Wild, Predators and Blues.

Completing the regular season would seem to satisfy those obligations. But there are others, such as sponsors. San Jose Sharks president Jonathan Becher told ESPN that empty arena games shown on television should fulfill them.

"It's very market-specific. But it's also sponsor-specific. Some people just want a certain number of activations. And they don't care if those activations happened all in 30 of the 41 home games. For others, they want it to happen across every game, including away games," he said. "The reality is that it's a highly nuanced situation. I'm sure someone will come up with an exception. If your partner says they have to have dasher visible on TV, and it's visible in our building but only partially visible in another building, does that count or not? You deal with that when you get there."

A source told ESPN that the use of "virtual boards" technology, which was seen at the NHL All-Star Game, would allow teams to have their own advertisements in games played at empty area sites.

The idea of an early June draft is being bandied about. What's the deal there?

Kaplan: Bettman first floated the idea of staging the draft before resuming play to his general managers as a trial balloon, but it's apparent the NHL is increasingly interested in doing it.

A decision on the draft is expected by the end of the week, as the NHL says it needs about a month to prepare for a virtual event. Bettman and the league's board of governors have a call on Monday afternoon, and this is expected to be a chief agenda item. It's unclear if the governors will need to vote on the date for the draft, or if the league will ultimately decide, though a league office source said: "You know that the commissioner doesn't operate without bringing all of the relevant groups into the process."

What did the NHL's memo to teams on Friday night say?

Wyshynski: The memo, authored by Daly and obtained by ESPN, detailed what the NHL envisions for the 2020 NHL draft if it's held before resumption of the season. Among the proposals:

  • A "virtual draft," much like what the NFL, WNBA and NWHL recently held. The NHL has begun "due diligence on the logistics and technical requirements that will be necessary to produce a successful event," and said it would need at least a month to prepare.
  • The draft lottery would involve the 15 teams that were outside of playoff positions when the season was paused on March 12. Their lottery odds would be determined by points percentage, i.e. the percentage of points the teams earned from all the points available in the games they've played. This is seen as a way around the fact that teams have played an uneven number of games.
  • One concern from general managers was that, depending on whether the NHL expands its playoff tournament in a season restart, the same team that secures the first overall pick in the draft could also win the Stanley Cup. To combat that, the league proposes a return to a previous draft lottery format: Picking one lottery winner, while limiting the number of places a ranked team can move up to four draft positions. Hence, the Detroit Red Wings -- last place in the NHL -- could do no worse than the second overall pick.
  • There are roughly 15 "conditional picks" that are yet to be determined for the 2020 draft, ranging from playoff qualification to how far teams advance in the playoffs. The NHL would give the teams involved in these trades seven days to "reform the trade on terms acceptable to both teams" or accept a solution proposed to the teams by the NHL. "Obviously, both teams would have to agree to the terms of any 'reformation' of any trade," wrote Daly.
  • A primary concern about an early draft is how it would affect the trade market. Typically, teams use the draft to begin "resetting" their rosters ahead of free agency and other offseason activities. That includes making trades that help alleviate salary-cap problems. By holding the draft before the season is completed, teams would be unable to trade players from their rosters due to trade-deadline and playoff-eligibility restrictions. The NHL acknowledged that "the possibility of moving players on active rosters will be effectively eliminated in connection with an early draft (because of trade deadline and playoff eligibility restrictions)." However, it felt that trades that were precluded by an "early draft" could still be completed in the offseason.
  • As far as trades go, the NHL argued that in analyzing deals over the last five seasons, "roughly one half of the trades actually made during those years would still have been permissible in the context of an 'early draft.'" In other words, trades that involved moving around picks or prospects rather than roster players.
  • The NHL argues that an early draft is the only way to ensure teams can bring over European players for next season, considering its late start. "The signing window for same-year drafted players closes as of July 15 (or, for an additional $100,000 payable by the NHL club, August 15). These deadlines ensure that the European teams have adequate advance notice regarding the players they will lose and not have access to in their upcoming seasons (which, in the case of European leagues, generally begin in September)," wrote Daly. "An early draft will preserve the bargained for right of NHL clubs to sign and transfer European players who will be selected in the upcoming draft. In the event we do not move up the date of the draft, the signing window for this year's drafted European players will be closed."

The general arguments the NHL made for the early draft were about timing and momentum. Daly expressed concerns about squeezing in a draft during a truncated offseason.

"There are complications. There's no perfect solution. We think there are benefits to having the draft in June, including the fact that it's a necessary piece of league business that has to transpire at some point and time, and our clubs are as ready for it now as they would be at any other time -- and probably better prepared than they would be in the fall. We don't want to have a situation where we're shoe-horning a draft lottery or a draft into a very short window of time, which we may be faced with," he said on CHED.

Moreover, the NHL is aware of how much attention the NFL draft received, both in coverage and viewership. "We believe that this may be a unique and extremely valuable opportunity to engage not only with our existing fans, but with sports fans generally who, at this point in time, will have been 'starved' of sports content for what will have been close to three months," wrote Daly. "While we understand that it is difficult to draw a direct parallel with the NFL and its recent draft experience, the fact of the matter is that more people watched this year's NFL draft than have ever watched it before -- by a very large margin."

Daly said that the league's broadcasting partners enthusiastically support an early draft. NBC "has committed to promoting and covering the event in ways it has never been in a position to cover it before." Sportsnet in Canada has vowed to provide a month's worth of content leading up to the draft.

Daly acknowledged that the majority of the league's general managers are in favor of a postseason draft. "Quite frankly, whatever we decide to do, there is no way, under these most unusual circumstances, for us to maintain the 'status quo.' We do believe that there are valid reasons to consider moving forward with a June draft -- which would appear, on balance, to have more upside potential and predictability for the clubs and the NHL governors and the league," he wrote.

What do NHL teams have to say about it?

Kaplan: Reaction so far has been mixed, though it appears an early June draft is far more popular in the league office (which is considering the larger-scale impact) than it is with NHL GMs (who are more focused on the minutiae of the draft itself).

The Maple Leafs are among the teams in favor of moving the draft up. "It's not ideal, we're never gonna be in a position for this year's draft where we're down on the floor together and mixing and mingling and making trades and talking to one another," Maple Leafs president Shanahan told the Tim & Sid Show last week. "So my view -- and it's just the view of the Maple Leafs, and I've talked to [Leafs GM] Kyle Dubas on this -- is while we know what we're doing now, which is not anything, we should get it out of the way and take care of it in June."

Others are against it, including Steve Yzerman of the Red Wings.

"My thought is: Why would you do that? Why would you need to do that?" Yzerman said in a Facebook Live chat with Fox Sports Detroit.. "There's a lot of things that are affected, obviously. The draft position hasn't been established; we don't know who's in the playoffs, who's out of the playoffs, in some cases ... But at this time, my own opinion is, I haven't heard a good reason why we should do it prior to the end of the season if we do conclude the season over the course of the summer."

Yzerman's comments are especially interesting because the Red Wings would benefit from the new proposed format. In a normal end-of-season draft, last-place Detroit would have an 18.5 percent chance of landing the top pick and a 50.6 percent chance of drafting fourth. In the new proposed format for an early June draft, the Red Wings would pick no lower than second. So if anything, Yzerman's distaste for the idea illustrates there's a lot more at play than just lottery order.

The most common sentiment among general managers: resignation.They know this is something that's above their paygrade, and will be sorted out by the league office and Board of Governors. As one GM texted me on Saturday: "If it's what Gary wants, it will happen."

That viewpoint was echoed by Bruins GM Don Sweeney, in a Zoom call with local reporters on Saturday.

"I have my own preferences," Sweeney said. "But that being said, I think the league has to make their decision about what's best for the overall decision making than any teams that have a personal preference and I have to respect that."

What are the scouts thinking?

Chris Peters: One Western Conference scout told ESPN, "I want it June 5. I'm more than ready, so is our team. I really hope they announce it soon. I don't want this hanging over our heads this summer."

An Eastern Conference scout noted that his team would have their list prepared if the draft was held early. "I think selfishly, us amateur scouts feel the earlier the better because everything will be more clear in our minds vs. waiting until September," said the scout.

But, there is some concern in the scouting community over the accelerated timeline. The NHL scouting combine was expected to be held June 1-6 in Buffalo before it was postponed. Final scouting meetings for teams are usually held shortly thereafter. While many teams have continued to adjust on the fly, the earlier draft does accelerate timelines beyond the norm.

"I would prefer to wait," said another Eastern Conference scout. "It's earlier than the normal draft, at least keep it on the normal date [June 26-27]? Why move it up? I don't get it."

A potential downside for scouts with a moved-up draft: One scout speculated that an early June draft, rather than one held after the summer season restart, would make it easier for owners to lay off hockey operations staff, particularly amateur scouts. Most of their contracts expire at the end of June.

With the NHL facing a flat salary cap next season at $81.5 million, as has been speculated, do the owners have options regarding player salaries?

Wyshynski: Anything the NHL's owners might want as a salary cap remedy has to be collectively bargained with the players.

We've heard that due to the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic on teams and the owners' other businesses, there isn't an appetite to buy out contracts. So another option might be a salary rollback, such as the one we saw in the 2005 lockout. But don't expect the players to enthusiastically consider that remedy.

"In that hypothetical, we would first have to know the financial situation of each team in detail, before you can even bite into that situation," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told ESPN recently. "Secondly, in one sense, anything like a rollback is simply a substitute for escrow. If I tell you I'm going to pay you $10 with a dollar escrow or I'm going to pay you $9 with no escrow, the result is the same. So you would look at it. But players, historically since 2004-05, react very negatively to the notion of a rollback. What you hope happens is that if you have a revenue loss going into next year, you grow out of that pretty quickly."

Any other hockey news I need to know?

Kaplan: The NWHL announced it is expanding to Toronto, which is pretty big news in women's hockey. The new Toronto team -- which does not yet have a name, logo, nor a home arena -- is being led by president Digit Murphy, the longtime CWHL and Brown University coach. The team made a big splash this past weekend by announcing its sixth signing: veteran forward Kelly Babstock, a native of Ontario.

In college hockey, Long Island University announced it was launching a Division I men's team, which follows the introduction of a women's team this past season. LIU aims to begin play in 2020-21, and is beginning an immediate search for a coach. Many have raised skepticism about how exactly LIU can pull this off during a global pandemic -- especially considering most teams have already filled their non-conference schedules. LIU would become the 61st Division I men's hockey program; Arizona State (2016) was the most recent addition, preceded by Penn State (2012).

Lastly, this week should have marked the start of the IIHF men's world championships in Switzerland. That tournament, like most of the international hockey slate, was canceled. The Swiss federation said this week it would not try to host next year's tournament, saying the financial risks were too great and there is no guarantee the coronavirus outbreak will allow the next championship in May 2021. We may not see that tournament in Switzerland for a while, as the IIHF has already awarded the tournament to hosts through 2025.

Finally, what's your latest pop culture addiction this week?

Kaplan: Like many millennial women, I'm reading a Sally Rooney book right now. I've started with her first novel, "Conversations with Friends."

Wyshynski: I've been blessed with new seasons of several series I dig, such as "Top Chef," "Killing Eve," "Insecure" and the various incarnations of "90 Day Fiance," perhaps the guiltiest of pleasures. I'm now happy to welcome a fresh few weeks of "Billions" episodes to the collection, because there's always room for Paul Giamatti using profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. As for reading, I'm diving through Grant Morrison's "Batman" run starting in 2006 and Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent run on "Black Panther." Binging comics is an afternoon well spent.

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