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NHL Restart Outlook

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Will we have an NHL season in 2021? The latest updates on where we stand with negotiations for another season of bubble hockey and what that might look like.

Back in October, the NHL and the NHL Players Association announced that they were targeting January 1st for the start of the next season. Well folks, its almost December, and we still don’t have an agreement on a plan to actually restart. Its not looking good for a January start.

The original agreement between the league and the players association back in July was that the players would agree to defer 10% of their salaries as well as put another 20% into escrow for this coming season. That’s already a tough blow when the average NHLer will be deferring/potentially losing nearly a million dollars based on that agreement. Now however reports have come out that the NHL has asked that another 13% of their salary be deferred, and proposed a higher escrow cap.

Salary alone is not the only problem in these negotiations either. The other major problem is logistics: the NHL will have to be played in some sort of bubble situation again if it wants to keep its players healthy and avoid the constant cancellations and other problems that non-bubble leagues like the NFL have been experiencing. As far as coronavirus cases go, the bubble setup from the playoffs was a huge success. There were no reported cases inside the bubbles, which is fantastic. The players, however, needed more than a virus-free experience. The players needed the NHL to deliver on its promises, and multiple players (anonymously) reported that they absolutely did not. It seems the players felt like they were bait and switched with 5 star promises and 2 star results as far as food, entertainment, and overall life inside the bubbles went. With the case already being made that the NHL either can’t or won’t make bubble life the kind of literal resort that the NBA managed, its going to be tough to get players to agree to an entire season of this.

Even if the NHL delivers on their 5 star promises, there’s still the matter of the separation from their families and normal lives. Many players had trouble with the isolation, with being away from their loved ones, with the “claustrophobic” feeling of a hyper-secure bubble that was in too many ways similar to a fancy prison. The playoff bubbles only lasted two months. How are they going to handle what could be an entire season in bubbles? What will the NHL do if/when players start to opt out? Especially for players who already lived through the first bubble and maybe don’t want to do it again, so you’d be losing top players from top teams? How happy would fans be to find out their star player or starting goalie or maybe even their head coach has to opt out? How badly would that affect the few sources of revenue the league has left in this moment, like jersey sales and viewership?

As much as every player wants to be able to play again and they are willing to make concessions like salary deferral to make it happen, players can’t just roll over and sign up for anything the NHL wants just to get things rolling. Bubble hockey demands a lot out of players, so the NHLPA is going to have to demand an equal amount from the NHL. Without fans or events or anything normal, can the NHL even afford to meet those demands?

Beyond the NHL and NHLPA negotiations, there are some serious logistical problems the NHL will have to figure out. The main one is, as evidenced by their deferral and escrow requests to the NHLPA, is money. NHL revenue is gate-driven; no fans in seats, no money in pockets. Paying player salaries as well as officials and crew salaries is one problem, but then the NHL also has to finance multiple massive bubbles and pay to house, feed, test, and entertain 31 teams worth of players for up to an entire season. I’m no expert but I have to imagine that costs more than letting teams play in an arena owned by the team owner, not the NHL, and then raking in the profits. I haven’t seen any update on how the bubbles are financed and what, if anything, team owners pay for, but if they’re getting away scot free this has to be one of the best deals for owners and worst for the league I’ve ever seen. Which is probably why said owners are so in favor of bubble hockey, or no hockey at all. Multiple owners have suggested that if the alternative is playing normally but in empty arenas, the league would be better off cancelling the season. The NHL is resistant to that idea since it would be bad for business in the long run, but I can’t imagine bankrupting smaller teams or the league itself would be good for business either.

Many teams would also have the issue of inconsistent state regulations. Dallas, for example, presumably would be allowed to have fans up to 50% capacity as is current Texas law, whereas teams in states like New Jersey aren’t allowed to have any fans. If games were to be played in their regular rinks, would there be a league-wide cap or outright ban on fans, or would each team be left to fend for themselves at the mercy of state and local ordinances?

Another issue for bubble hockey is travel. Teams traveling from the US to Canada would be required to quarantine for two weeks after their arrival, which is impossible in an already condensed season timeline. So we’ll most likely see at least two, probably three or four bubbles spread throughout the NHL, with one maybe being a Canadian bubble. In the playoffs, having separate bubbles worked because each conference only plays themselves until the final. In the regular season we play every team, so the league will either have to find a safe way to bubble hop or rework the entire concept of the schedule. I’m expecting one wicked road trip where a team would hop to a different bubble and play all of their games against that conference/division, then hop to a different bubble to try and keep travel and interaction vectors to a minimum. If the Canadian teams do have their own bubble then we may see them come down towards the end of the regular season, and then stay down through the playoffs. It would certainly take some shuffling of the type of schedules we’re used to, but it can probably be done.

Another logistical problem to keep in mind is the effect of the ‘closed’ border on AHL teams— several Canadian teams have US based AHL affiliates, so they wouldn’t be able to recall players without them quarantining. An all Canadian AHL has been proposed as a solution. Extremely expanded in-bubble rosters that would allow for potential re-call candidates to remain with their NHL team could also work, and would likely be a huge help in the event of a more condensed schedule to give players some nights off.

So can the NHL make this happen? The July agreement for a 2021 season included a three week training camp, with some sources suggesting a longer training camp for the 7 teams that did not make the playoffs and therefore haven’t played together since March (which, in case you’ve pushed that fact so far out of your mind that you’ve forgotten, does include the Devils). So let’s imagine that means an extra week for those teams. They’d need to get started at least a month before their target date. With that target date being January 1st, and December 1st being two days away, I’m definitely not putting my money on that happening. Maybe they’ll push the season backwards for those 7 teams and put the extra training camp time at the end, giving them until around December 10th to make an agreement happen. That one’s possible for sure, but I’m not holding my breathe for that either. Maybe February?

Your Take

How would you want to see the NHL season restart take place? When do you think we’ll be able to see pucks on ice again, if at all? On a scale from one to a million how much do you miss Devils hockey? As always, leave your thoughts in the comments and thanks for reading!