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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

On Second Thought

While the official target date for the start of the NHL season remains Jan. 1, commissioner Gary Bettman ended weeks of silence on that hot topic with something resembling an update when he spoke with the Sports Business Journal Wednesday.

With the NHL monitoring the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and talking to medical experts, Bettman didn’t sound nearly as adamant about the date as he did before going silent weeks ago, saying he’ll wait and see what happens after the holidays. In that regard, that approach makes all the sense in the world given soaring COVID numbers, even if it’s better late than never.

When I wrote about everything it’ll take to get the season started late last month and suggested a February start made more sense for many reasons, it didn’t go over well with some Edmonton Oilers’ fans. One reader, perhaps having information nobody else does, even suggested we “book it” for a January start. Understandable impatience in this hockey hotbed, but it’s almost certainly not going to happen.

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REALITY CHECK

May 27, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference before game one of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

“We talk to some pretty highly placed people, without name-dropping,” Bettman said. “COVID is going through a second wave, which could be worse than the first wave. And between Thanksgiving and the aftermath, and what they think is going to happen for Christmas and the aftermath, we are taking our time and making sure that as we look for ways to move forward. We’re focused on health and safety and doing the right things.”

Back in October after the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup in Edmonton Sept. 28, the NHL was talking about a Dec. 1 start and playing an 82-game schedule. The target date was later changed to Jan. 1. That’s when widespread speculation began about playing an abbreviated schedule – to allow the possibility of getting back to a timeline that allows for a normal start to the following season.

That timeline is still do-able with a 48-game schedule that begins the first week of February – assuming that the NHL and NHLPA can come to an agreement on what the financial details are going to look like moving forward. That’s not done yet of course, and there’s also no way to know what the status of the pandemic will be a month from now, and that trumps everything else. That’s the rub right there.

TAKE IT OUTSIDE?

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According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, four NHL teams are exploring the possibility of playing home games outdoors if the season gets started and teams are allowed to have fans attend games at some point. According to the story, Anaheim, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are the four teams.

As Friedman says, it’s a longshot for a lot of reasons – not the least being cost and the planning it would take to fit outdoor games into a schedule that’s already in flux with game dates and divisional alignments yet to be determined. It’s a pie-in-the-sky possibility. Let’s just get a 48-game schedule locked down, if possible, and forget about adding a wildcard like an outdoor game into the deck.

WHILE I’M AT IT

So, Luke Fox of Sportsnet has the Oilers finishing fourth if the NHL goes with an all-Canadian division. He doesn’t particularly like the goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith. I would suggest a closer look at Koskinen’s numbers will show he’s not exactly the second coming of Andre Racicot, especially if he (and Smith) can improve his even-strength numbers.

Fox has the Toronto Maple Leafs finishing atop the division, followed by the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets. Then come the Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. Of course, we won’t know how a Canadian division will shake out unless we get that alignment and a season, but assuming we do, I’ll print off this item and eat it if the Oilers don’t finish in the top three.

Previously by Robin Brownlee