The NHL's coronavirus pause: Playoff format, practice plans, draft debate and more

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

It has been 60 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?

Greg Wyshynski: Sadly, there is not. The NHL's 2019-20 season remains paused, as it has been since March 12, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Games have been postponed, not canceled. The league continues to play the waiting game.

(The American Hockey League, meanwhile, has ended its waiting game this week and has canceled the rest of its "paused" season. It's an even more gate-driven league than the NHL, so a restart in empty arenas doesn't make much sense. An NHL executive estimated to the Ottawa Sun that "75-to-85% of the revenues for AHL teams are generated by ticket sales and the rest come in from sponsorships.")

The situation remains fluid and unpredictable for the NHL, which is still at the mercy of local and federal restrictions on travel, mass gatherings and essential businesses. The broad strokes of the NHL's plans remain consistent: Finish the 2019-20 season, and do it in a way that won't dramatically impact the integrity of an 82-game 2020-21 season. All possibilities remain on the table for a season restart. But as one NHL source put it last week: Anyone claiming there are concrete dates for a return to play is peddling inaccurate information.

"If we can go back early, we will. If we have to wait, we will. And next year will be determined by when we finish," the source said.

Is returning to play without fans attending games still the likely plan?

Wyshynski: Yes. The NHL is deep into planning for games to be played without fans if the season is restarted.

But what if the league waited to play the rest of the 2019-20 season until fans could potentially return to arenas?

That's one of the theories we've been hearing from sources around the league: that the NHL could potentially wait until September or October to finish the 2019-20 season. Perhaps then restrictions on mass gatherings could be lifted, and safety protocols for fans at games could be implemented. Generating revenue is one of the main catalysts for restarting the season -- why not wait to see if that could include gate revenue from fans attending games, if the restart were pushed much later in the year?

It's an interesting theory, no doubt. But not one currently under consideration by the NHL. A league source strongly pushed back on this being an option, indicating that the season will be restarted sooner rather than later.

One big reason: the unpredictability of the pandemic. If the league waited beyond the expected restart window in July and August, and then there's a second wave of COVID-19 that forces further restrictions and another shutdown, then next season could be dramatically impacted. Which, again, is the last thing the NHL wants, especially since fans could be back at some point in 2020-21.

Is the NHL still considering a plan with four hub cities? And which cities/teams have put in bids to host?

Emily Kaplan: Yep, that's still the plan for now, though the NHL is not in any rush to firm up where those hub cities will be -- largely because there's still too much unknown about what the landscape will look like later this summer.

According to sources, a "double-digit" number of teams have expressed interest and put in proposals to the NHL to host. The NHL has some criteria each city would need to tick off. For one, there needs to be an adequate testing program -- in other words, the NHL would need to have the ability to obtain a large number of coronavirus tests and administer them. The city must also have a "first-class" arena, available practice ice, hotel capacity and the ability of secure access for everything. And most importantly: Any city would have to have the OK from local governments and health authorities to stage games.

That has led some politicians to get involved. On Wednesday, British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he wrote a letter to commissioner Gary Bettman and the head of the NHLPA, Donald Fehr, to let them know that B.C. is "a place to potentially restart the NHL assuming the games would be played without audiences, but instead played for television." Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that the Maple Leafs' parent company, MLSE, has been in contact with the province about the possibility of Toronto being a host as well.

One thing to keep an eye on is what quarantine protocols would look like in each of these locations. Players have already expressed a lot of pushback about being separated from their families for an extended period of time. Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota's NHLPA player rep, has been on a lot of the calls with Fehr and other union leaders lately. In a conference call with local reporters this week, Dubnyk reiterated that this is a big issue among players.

"Guys with kids at home aren't interested in shackling up somewhere for four months and being away from them," Dubnyk said. "I know myself personally, I'm not interested in packing up and going away for that length of time away from my family. I can't imagine that anybody else would, and I think it sounds like the NHL is sensitive to that and understands that, so we're just going to have to wait and see how everything unfolds here."

Dubnyk added: "These are questions that can't be answered right now, but, I mean, nobody with kids is going to want to be away for three or four months at a time. I think that's a lot to ask out of guys."

What's the latest on playoff format?

Wyshynski: We can confirm that the league is currently focused on jumping directly to the Stanley Cup playoffs rather than attempting to complete the regular season ahead of the playoffs.

As we've reported before, there are 189 regular-season games left on the schedule to be played. NHL teams have contractual commitments with local broadcasting partners and sponsors that wouldn't be fulfilled. That money would be likely credited against revenue from the 2020-21 season. There's upward of $150 million left on the table if the NHL doesn't complete its regular season.

But as of last week, the focus has been on skipping right to the playoffs. This doesn't make it a certainty -- focus can shift quickly during these unpredictable times -- but this is the current thinking.

Part of the motivation is timing. The NHL has no idea when it might be able to attempt a restart, and hence might not have time to stage regular-season games. Part of this is the duration: If they're asking players to play in a quarantined "hub," reducing the amount of time necessary for them to be in that hub would be optimal. Part of this is the pushback, as several players from non-playoff teams have voiced concerns about returning to play in a pandemic for what would be essentially meaningless games -- especially if the 2020 NHL draft is held before the season is restarted, rendering those final regular-season games immaterial toward the draft lottery.

The New York Post reported that the NHL's "reopening plan" has shifted to "staging a 24-team tournament that would include a best-of-three, play-in round." That's one of the formats under consideration, but the playoff format could end up with fewer teams.

An NHL source said the number of teams in the postseason, and the format, would be entirely dictated by the schedule for the restart, vis--vis next season. "And they have no idea on the timing," the source said.

And what about the draft?

Kaplan: As we reported last week, the NHL league office is extremely interested in staging the draft in early June, before the 2019-20 season is completed. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly sent out a memo to teams on May 1 that stated the league's case. Daly wrote that NBC and Sportsnet, the league's broadcast partners, "are enthusiastically in favor of an early draft."

He noted the NFL's smash-hit ratings for its April draft, which capitalized on a nonexistent sports schedule, and promised that the NHL could create weeks worth of media content to keep hockey relevant. But the biggest point, which Daly articulated in a CHED Edmonton radio interview: "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 in 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."

So the NHL held a conference call with its board of governors last Monday. The league was hoping for a quick decision -- especially since it's believed there needs to be about a month of prep time before the draft -- but the governors pushed back against the idea on the call. Most of it stemmed from concerns from their own general managers; very few GMs want an earlier draft, citing complicated logistics that are simply too unorthodox, even during this unprecedented time.

(Among issues brought up: the fact that the draft is typically a busy time for trading. If the draft were held before the completion of the 2019-20 season, that would obviously prohibit some moves. Plus, the league doesn't even know what its salary cap will be next season, so many teams don't know what type of roster maneuvering they'll need to do.)

As of this writing, the NHL still has not made a decision on when to hold the draft. And the new tune the league office is singing? There's no urgency in reaching a decision.

Is the timing of the draft tied to the restart of the 2019-20 season?

Wyshynski: We've gotten some conflicting reports on this. An NHL source indicated that Bettman wanted to "see what happens with the season before he makes a decision on the draft." An NHL source also said that "right now they're tied to each other."

But Daly said in an email to ESPN on Friday that the date of the draft being tied to the scheduling of the restarted season is "not accurate."

What about the NHL reopening training facilities for players?

Kaplan: The NHL wants to be able to open team facilities for players to participate in small group workouts, and it is still aiming for it to happen in mid-to-late May. That would move the league into "Phase 2" of its return-to-play schedule, and keep the NHL on track to resuming play at some point this summer.

However, the league has decided -- based off input from teams, the board of governors and the NHLPA -- that for competitive balance purposes, it doesn't want to open facilities until an "acceptable mass" of markets are able to do so. As of now, only about half of the league's 31 teams are in cities that would allow facilities to open. The league is monitoring the reopening plans of states and provinces, and whenever it determines that the disparity between markets has acceptably shrunk, it will move.

"We will make a league-wide decision on the opening of team training facilities, and it will be at least somewhat dependent on where each market is across the league in terms of its ability to accommodate small group training. We aren't looking to create competitive inequities between various markets," Daly noted in an email to ESPN.

The NBA is opening up its facilities for small group workouts. Does that impact the NHL?

Kaplan: On Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers became the first two NBA facilities to open. Players worked out on separate ends of the court, while assistant coaches were required to wear a mask and gloves. Cavs forward Kevin Love detailed the experience of working out to ESPN on Friday, explaining that he had to use a side entrance, and was questioned about people he had interacted with recently and how they had been feeling. Love, and all others who entered the facility, also had to take temperature checks; anyone with a fever was not allowed inside.

The NHL will probably feature similar protocols. However, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA is also allowing teams to administer tests to asymptomatic players and staff, as long as coronavirus testing is readily available in that municipality. That's something the NHL would like to do but doesn't feel comfortable doing just yet.

"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," Daly told CHEDEdmonton last week. "We will not test asymptomatic players ahead of symptomatic people who are unable to get tested. It's just something we will not do."

The NHL canceled its international games in 2020. Any further takeaways from that decision?

Kaplan: The Global Series is a key event for the NHL's international marketing and growth strategy. For the 2020-21 season, the NHL had committed to some good matchups: The Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators were scheduled to open their seasons against one another in Prague after completing their training camps in Germany and Switzerland, respectively. Then, the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets were due to play a pair of regular-season games at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. It would have been a particularly special trip for Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen, a native of Finland and the NHL's first European-born general manager.

With the next few months in flux, the NHL and NHLPA made the proactive decision to cancel all of those events, though the league said it was "looking forward" to a return in 2021. The future of European games is not in doubt, but it will be interesting to see how the NHL handles its strategy in Asia going forward. The NHL has been trying to establish a presence in China and played preseason games in China in 2017 and 2018 but missed this past fall because of logistical issues with booking arenas. While the NHL was optimistic about a return ahead of the 2020-21 season, Daly told ESPN last month that the outbreak made it difficult to firm up plans. As the NHL tries to restore normalcy over the next two seasons, let's see how ambitious the NHL becomes with scheduling and what the appetite is for all parties.

Jeff Carter won't be able to play if the season resumes because he can't see his specialist. Are any other players in the same boat?

Wyshynski: Kings GM Rob Blake revealed last week that Carter won't be back for Los Angeles in a restarted season. "Part of the issue is he needs to travel to see a certain specialist to get a further diagnosis and nothing can be taking place right now. He's continuing a rehab program from home. He hasn't been around the practice rink in that aspect, but I wouldn't expect him to be able to play if our season were to start in the next couple of months," Blake said.

There are likely other players who aren't getting the specialized attention they need with NHL and medical facilities closed, but most of the recent stories about injuries are about players on the mend during the COVID-19 pause.

  • Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones had ankle surgery on Feb. 11 and could have been out up to 10 weeks. Teammate Oliver Bjorkstrand went out on Feb. 20 with a fractured ankle and also was expected to be out up to 10 weeks. The two players have been skating together during the pause, as rehabbing players have been permitted to do so.
  • Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reported that "you can bet all the previously injured [Avalanche] players are ready to go, including Colin Wilson, who hasn't played since October." That list includes forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert and goaltender Philipp Grubauer
  • A lower-body injury sidelined Golden Knights winger Mark Stone for the final six games before the NHL season was paused. He was expected to miss a month, but told "I'm good. Healing up. Still have a couple little obstacles to get over, but overall in a good spot. Just want to play hockey again."

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

Kaplan: It was (briefly) biking weather in Chicago last week -- maybe spring will come, eventually -- so I caught up on some podcasts while going for some rides around my neighborhood. Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's "Oh Hello, the P'dcast" was an enjoyable diversion. Their bit, which includes misemphasized pronunciations and ridiculous gestures, like "entirely too much tuna," totally translates to audio. And there's some good satire of podcasting as a format, as well.

Wyshynski: I just started "Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the '80s Changed Hollywood Forever" by Nick de Semlyen, which looks at the breakout moments for comedians such as Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Steve Martin. It came highly recommended for fans of "inside the business" stories, like yours truly. We're also playing a few board and card games, and "Monopoly Deal" is a fun one: a 15-minute micro-version of "Monopoly," where you try to complete three property sets. There are lots of fun action cards to steal away properties and force your opponents to pay rent. Sometimes the cards work in your favor. Other times you start whining about "not getting any stupid wild cards in the four games I lost." Any guess which one was me?