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What’s the latest in the NHL’s return-to-play hopes?

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No one is sure if we’ll see NHL players back on the ice any time soon

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If the NHL takes the ice on January 1st for their 2020-21 season, there will be players — through no fault of their own — who haven’t set foot in a rink for competitive game play since early- to mid-March.

That, of course, is the league’s best-case goal for the upcoming year. Since their bubble-city-hosted 2020 playoffs, they’ve been insisting to fans that the goal is to start a season at the New Year and play an 82-game season, capping things off with a postseason that they hope to finish before July 15th. They’ve already cancelled their outdoor games and All Star festivities, pushing aside all extraneous events as they desperately attempt to pull together a season in time.

While the NBA has announced their own 2021 format, though, the NHL is still scrambling to get out the final word — and thanks to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, we know that things are murkier than ever.

So what do we know? Let’s break it down:

The season’s projected start: Still January 1st

According to LeBrun, the three sides involved in trying to make this whole thing work — the NHL, the NHL Player’s Association, and the 16-player Return To Play committee — are still heavily invested in the idea of a January 1st start date. They’re also still invested in setting the game counts at 60 or higher, although the number 82 hasn’t been tossed around quite as much as before.

That’s still going to push things pretty tight. For fans who remember the most recent NHL lockout, the 2013 season started on January 19th, and the league only played out 48 games per team before the postseason began. In order to get over 60 games per team, scheduling is going to have to run fairly tight and push out past the traditional end to the season — easier without an All-Star break tossed in there, but still something that’s going to be tricky to navigate.

Part of the problem will be travel, fatigue, and risk of injury with games so close together. Another potential obstacle, though, will be for teams with shared arenas — since the NBA is going to be condensing their season down in the same time frame that the NHL will be. Teams like the Dallas Stars share a home with the NBA’s Mavericks, the Avalanche share with the Nuggets, and the LA Kings share with two teams — the LA Clippers and the LA Lakers. If they want to get this right, as LeBrun points out, they’ll have to make a decision by the end of the month.

The league format: re-aligned divisions with an isolated Canada

Part of the struggle this upcoming season is going to be travel. There’s no dispute there; with the harsher covid-19 related restrictions in place, it’s going to be tougher to get teams from city to city with the ease they have in years past.

For that reason, combined with the closed US-Canadian border for the time being, it seems like the NHL is going to re-align divisions for the season to give the seven Canadian teams their own division. The Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, and Calgary Flames will temporarily leave the Pacific Division, the Winnipeg Jets will leave the Central, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens will leave the Atlantic.

The proposal? ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski gave his best guess based on what’s being tossed around:

The proposal would essentially dissolve the Metropolitan Division and do some shuffling, with the Colorado Avalanche being one of the teams on the move. They, along with the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars, would join the ‘West’ Division, which would already include the bulk of the Pacific with the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Vegas Golden Knights.

The Central Division would gain a few teams from both the Metro and the Atlantic to make up for their three teams lost to the West and one to Canada, which leaves just the Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, and St. Louis Blues. As a result, they’d pick up the Atlantic’s Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Detroit Red Wings, along with the Metro’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The remainder of the Atlantic and the Metro would become the East Division, essentially picking up all of America’s East Coast teams and bundling them together. The Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Carolina Hurricanes would join with the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins, creating the league’s most travel-friendly division of them all.

The Canadian teams have already expressed some concern that the ‘superdivision’ made up of almost entirely teams that had been playoff-bound (not Ottawa) would leave a handful of teams as the odd men out, but each of the additional divisions will pose some obstacles of their own. The West Division will span a whopping three times zones (more than either the Central or the East), stretching from east Texas and Minnesota to the California coast. The travel in that division alone will be fairly brutal, with the Minnesota Wild getting the Coyotes Central Division treatment; they’ll be pulled away from the closest teams to them in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis to head out west instead. The newly-formed Central Division will largely have easy travel, although the two Florida teams will still get the short end of the stick there — and the frigid midwest temps could potentially bring increased covid-related hardships for that region as well. The East will have both a healthy smattering of good and bad teams, and a fairly easy travel schedule — so they should be the happiest division of them all. But those teams have nearly all lost their ECHL affiliates for the upcoming season, so they’ll likely be sending extra players overseas for the year — which could make it hard to make recalls for their AHL teams, or for their goaltending depth. They could find themselves running with severely shortened benches in the minors if they encounter any kind of injury issues throughout the year — which could lead to some extra fatigue on the whole.

Wait - there’s a CBA holdup, too?

Possibly. It’s kind of complicated.

The problem here? Buckle up.

The NHL and NHLPA struggled so mightily with their last CBA negotiations in part because of revenue splits and escrow. To make a long and tricky concept short, team owners and players divide hockey-related revenue between themselves; under the current CBA, 50 percent of the revenue goes to the players and the other 50 percent goes to the owners.

Obviously, teams can’t exactly predict what hockey-related revenue (or HRR) will be before a season even starts, so salary caps are based off of estimates for what HRR will be for the upcoming season. Players have the option, through the NHLPA, to activate an ‘escalator’ for the salary cap — meaning they’ll artificially inflate the estimates in order to be given a higher salary cap for the season ahead of time in hopes that the league’s revenue exceeds what they hope it will be.

Since players get paid before the season is finished and HRR figures have been tallied, they put a certain amount of money into ‘escrow’ throughout the season. It serves as like a holding account for a percentage of the players’ salaries, ready to be used to pay into owner splits of HRR if the year’s totals fall below projections and ready to be paid back to players if the projections were right.

Deciding how much money would get put into escrow each season — and what kind of a split the players and the teams would have — was a major sticking point in the last CBA negotiations. And now, that revenue split is coming up again, largely thanks to the inevitable nosedive HRR will take without fans in stands at games this year.

In years where players hypothetically escalate the salary cap above the point where escrow would be able to cover discrepancies to get to a 50-50 team/player revenue split, the players owe the excess money back to team owners in future debt payments. That’s particularly important this year, because that portion of the CBA is almost certainly going to come into play — even with the flat cap this year. It seems almost inevitable that players will need to return some of the revenue back to owners, and that the amount they’ll owe back won’t be insignificant.

According to LeBrun, the NHL ownership group believes that the salary deferral and escrow rates agreed upon during their June CBA agreement won’t be enough; he reports that they want to change those rates to properly reflect the nearly-guaranteed losses that teams will be stacking up. The players, though, aren’t happy with the idea of already tweaking rates they agreed upon not even six months ago — during the midst of the pandemic, nonetheless.

It’s a vaguely similar situation to what was happening in baseball ahead of the MLB’s 2020 season, although the stark differences in salary structures and team/player revenue sharing between baseball and hockey prevent the two situations from being identical. Like with baseball, though, this is a situation where the players hold the cards — and with just a few weeks left to try and get things wrapped up, it’s going to be crucial that these issues get solved sooner rather than later.