There are still more questions than answers when it comes to resuming the 2019-20 season, but for the first time since being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears as though the NHL is close to outlining their road back. Over the weekend, NHL league executives, along with the Board of Governors and the NHLPA spent a lot of time narrowing down the most optimal plan of action for finding a conclusion to the season.
According to multiple reports, the idea of a 24-team “playoff” has gained a lot of traction and has become the most likely course of action.
If they can work out the logistics - something no one should be assuming at this point - the league plans to play in two “hub” cities where they will keep teams quarantined. The format would likely result in a round of “play-in” games, followed by a more recognizable 16 team tournament. The Stanley Cup would then be awarded in an empty arena (likely in Vegas or Las Angeles) sometime in September. The plan is far from ideal but if the league wants to finish the season, it’s likely the best-case scenario, given the circumstances.
Quarantining everyone associated with the teams, sanitizing arenas, changing the game day routine and on-ice behavior of players - it’s going to be a logistical nightmare. So why bother?
No matter what Gary Bettman or Bill Daly says, the NHL isn’t trying to come back for some altruistic “we must award the Stanley Cup” reason, it’s simply to regain as much lost revenue as possible.
The NHL had projected $5 billion for the 2019-20 season. If they cancel the remainder of the season, the actual number will only get to about $3.9 billion. That shortfall would wreak havoc on the league’s financial situation going forward. In order to maintain a flat cap - something both the NHL and NHLPA seem to want - it would mean a huge spike in escrow over the next few years.
On a radio hit in Toronto Monday evening, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman mentioned something that many people connected to the NHL had heard but were unwilling or unable to report. Friedman mentioned that a large percentage of players would prefer not to return this season but that they are willing to in order to mitigate the damage done by the lost revenue. With such a large break in the season and the prospects of being away from their homes for weeks at a time, a lot of players don’t think finishing the season is worth it. That said, they’d be open to it if they can be assured that it would help bring down the amount of escrow they’d have to pay in the future.
The league will never be able to make up the $1.1b shortfall but if they can get back on the ice in August, it would mean that number would shrink - even though they won’t be selling tickets. As thing sit now, the league is going to have to credit their television partners for games missed. That’s one major reason why the league is hell bent on expanding the playoffs to 24 teams. The more games the NHL can get on TV, the closer they get to fulfilling their television obligations for the season.
“As long as health and wellness is always the first thing we’re thinking about, for the players, for the trainers or the equipment managers and everyone else. As long as the doctors from the NHLPA and the NHL have been consulting and they decide it’s OK to return to play, I’d be excited to play whichever [playoff] format,” said Colorado Avalanche forward J.T. Compher.
Of course, the health and safety of players and team officials is also important to the players. But if that were the only driving factor, the season would have already been cancelled. The best thing for the safety of the players is to not play at all. The fact that resuming play is even on the table at all is entirely financially motivated.
Things aren’t as simple as “play the games and money comes back”. The NHL and Players Association will have to negotiate how the remainder of hockey related revenue is calculated and how any return to play will impact players’ salaries in the future.
Things will change a million times between today and the time any concrete announcement is made. For now it seems as though the NHL and their players are making progress on a plan to get back on the ice by August - a plan that is driven almost completely by financial motivations, for better or worse.