The NHL has undoubtedly done an incredible job in executing the 2020 playoffs.
After the league got put on pause when the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league picked up and executed a 24-team playoff between two bubble cities, Edmonton and Toronto.
Save for some frustration around low-seeded teams making the playoffs and a strange draft lottery situation, everything has worked out well in the league’s return to play. We’re now in the Conference Finals and, if all goes well, somebody will be lifting the Stanley Cup at Rogers Place in a few weeks.
But the challenge certainly doesn’t end here — it only gets bigger.
As the playoffs wind down and we move into the off-season, the league is going to have to determine how to execute the 2020-21 season, a challenge that features even more hurdles than this summer’s tournament did.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly went on the Two-Man Advantage podcast with Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside and spoke about what the league is thinking with 2020-21 on the horizon. While finishing the playoffs, awarding a Stanley Cup Champion, and executing the draft in October are the league’s top priorities right now, the NHL has started thinking about what a full season in a COVID world will look like.
Daly said that the league is actively prioritizing the execution of a full 82-game schedule, even if that means pushing the calendar into the summer again. The original goal of starting on Dec. 1 isn’t looking realistic anymore, so a start in January would result in the Stanley Cup being awarded in July or August. Regardless, Daly said that it’s a goal for the league to play 82 games, though it might not be realistic.
“We have to focus on what next season looks like, and that’s going to be an enormous challenge again, and it’s going to be a totally different challenge than the one we’re just trying to complete right now,” Daly said from Edmonton, where he’s in the bubble attending games. “We’re going to take our time, we’re going to gather as many data points as we can, whether it be from how professional football looks this fall, how collegiate athletics look this fall, both football and hockey, and maybe to some extent basketball.
“I think there are always ways to play. I think what you choose to do in terms of playing is really the more complicated question. How do you put on a season? We remain certainly intent on trying to have an 82-game regular season. Whether that’s possible or not is yet to be seen.
Ultimately, there’s only so much planning ahead you can do when the landscape changes so quickly. Nobody knows whether the United States-Canada border will be open by the time January rolls around and there’s certainly no guarantee that fans will be able to attend games.
As we saw with Major League Baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays weren’t granted permission to play their home games in Toronto because of the volume of players and staff that would be coming in and out of the city throughout the season. Instead, they had to scramble to get a minor-league park in Buffalo renovated for them to use as their home field.
The NHL faces more of a challenge as seven of its 31 teams are based in Canada. So if the border remains closed and teams aren’t granted an exemption, the Canadian NHL teams could be put in a similar situation to the Blue Jays.
So, what about doing the bubble again?
While this worked out for a short tournament during the summer, Daly said that it’s off the table for the regular season. Beyond players not wanting to be away from their families again, it’s an incredibly difficult endeavour for the league and its staff to execute.
“There’s no doubt what will end up being two-plus months in a secure zone with no interaction with the outside world including family members, is very, very taxing,” Daly said. “And it’s not just taxing for players, it’s taxing on club staff members, it’s taxing on league staff members; league staff members got there two weeks in advance. So it’s even longer for that group of people.
At this point, all we can do is speculate. There really aren’t any guarantees, but we know the league will do whatever it can to execute a season in 2020-21. And, like this summer’s playoffs, it’ll surely be unlike one that we’ve ever seen.