Other than that certainty (ok, the last half of that statement’s certain, the first part not so much), what the NHL will look like next season is up in the air. Over the past couple days, bits and bobs of speculation has started to leak out onto Twitter. Keep in mind, none of this is official and the NHL hasn’t released any of their plan as of yet. COVID-19 spread is on the rise due to the shift to winter, especially in states with colder climates. Factor in Thanksgiving and Christmas, and no one is exactly sure what the environment will look like come January.
Right now, the latest bit of speculation is that the season will be shortened. This makes sense, because unless the league wants to have a crazy brief off-season or a spate of injuries because games are packed in too densely, getting 82 games in will be a challenge.
Hearing #NHL recent proposal is a 60 game regular season over 4 to 4.5 months.— Andy Strickland (@andystrickland) November 18, 2020
This tracks with Pierre LeBrun’s updates from the player’s committee side of things. The committee, which is 16 members of the NHLPA, have been discussing a game plan on their own while the NHLPA have been communicating with the NHL this week.
So, if there's early January puck drop, that means getting this done by the end of the month. As we saw in the spring/summer, these things can drag out, but the hope is that if there's an agreement it's within the next 7-10 days. But we'll see if talks hit a snag or not ($$).— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) November 17, 2020
Getting this done by the end of this month is vital for training camps starting with enough time to recall players from foreign assignments and to work through some red tape with governments like Canada - because the Canadian players whose families make their home north of the border may have issues returning home to see them during the season, depending on what Canada’s border rules continue to be. Right now, the border is closed to inessential travel, and that doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon.
A January 1st start date also meas that the League is going to have to figure out an alignment system and schedule ASAP. The Canadian teams won’t be able to cross the border, leading to buzz of a Canadian Division, and then a re-alignment of the American teams based on geographic proximity. It may resemble MLB’s plan from this year, which limited travel across large swaths of the country. The more recent(ish) Eastern and Western Conference boundaries may come down for a season as Columbus and Detroit are welcomed back into a division with St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, and Minnesota.
The issue is, of course, is that travel can spread COVID-19. The NHL did a tremendous job in ensuring that the playoff bubbles were safe, and part of that was because they stayed in one place. If the testing protocol remains the same, and if every arena and chartered flight is an extension of the bubble concept, then this could work.
The league will have to deal with the semantics of the season before they discuss bringing fans back into the building. This is the most important piece of the puzzle for owners, as actually having fans in the seats contributes a huge percentage of a team’s revenue. That is more dependent on the current state of viral affairs than the league’s actual restart. Having fans in a bubble is easier said than done, and it’s not exactly easily said.