The list of things we don’t know about the current NHL situation is long. Some of them are weird, like: Will this season count as an accrued season towards UFA years for Rasmus Sandin if they don’t ever play more regular season games? Some of them are more obvious, like: What will the cap be next year? But the big one is: Will there even be hockey?
I don’t know that one either, but absolutely everything the NHL is doing says they mean it when they say they hope there will be a Stanley Cup awarded for 2019-2020.
Let’s start at the extreme end to unpack that hope. Do you expect that the 2020-2021 season won’t be played? Do you think it wouldn’t be able to start until after the end of this year? If no, then one way or another, a playoffs can be held and a cup awarded before the end of December.
No one realistically projects that the NHL will resume in a few weeks or even one month. But it’s also realistically possible to play a shortened format playoffs in June, July or August, if safety permits.
By now, most people have heard about this:
New: Starting immediately and for the next 8 weeks, CDC recommends cancelling all events of 50 or more people. Full recommendation here: https://t.co/LrjUt4rl7B #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/OroIqhTYJo— CDC (@CDCgov) March 16, 2020
And if that’s just a starting point to a longer period of near quarantine, then the ability of the NHL to continue looks bleaker.
UPDATE: Further to this point, the NHL is moving its highly theoretical plans further into the future:
This is a signficant change from NHL's previous to return-to-play plan. As part of this new directive, it sounds like the league hopes to re-open camps in late April.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 16, 2020
Let’s run down where we are right now. The NHL and the AHL are suspended, not cancelled. The ECHL is done for this season, as is their feeder league, the SPHL. US College hockey is cancelled while the CHL is still in suspended animation, so only NCAA free agents are available:
Regarding college free agent signings for NHL teams, business as usual for future year contracts. But no current year contracts allowed until anyone knows what the current year looks like. So for now, any signing means the deal is dated July 1 and goes into effect next season.— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) March 15, 2020
However, the QMJHL was said to be allowing European players to go home, and a cancellations of those seasons seems inevitable.
Almost all international hockey is officially cancelled. Most leagues sitting with play suspended, have given in to the inevitable and cancelled the remaining play. Their inevitable is driven in part by the simple reality that their foreign players, particularly Canadians and Americans, were not going to sit out a downtime in Europe, so even if they turn around in June able to play, they’re missing a lot of players, and they’re much closer to the start of their training camp than the NHL is.
The international exception to the everything is cancelled is that the IIHF has not (yet) formally cancelled anything past the end of March, but that’s expected today.
And then there’s the KHL. As of Sunday, they were planning to resume their second round of the playoffs on Tuesday, short one team. Jokerit, who play in Helsinki, pulled out, forfeiting their round to SKA St. Petersburg. As with anything else right now, the KHL’s schedule might change, and they may join the rest of the world in shutting down, and in their case, it would likely be an immediate cancellation.
If they don’t, one game will be played on Tuesday in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and two on Wednesday, one in Kazan in the east of Russia and one in Moscow, where by mayoral order, no fans will be allowed.
The related leagues to the KHL, the VHL and the junior league, MHL are still operating at this time, and both played games on March 15.
Nur-Sultan Barys withdraws the team from the Gagarin Cup playoffs. Expect the KHL to announce they suspend the season in an hour or so— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) March 16, 2020
If they choose to suspend rather than cancel, it will be interesting to see if any foreign players stay around.
Rumours and Plans
The AHL is widely expected to have their season cancelled soon. The ECHL announcement was planned for today, but a reporter got wind, so they released the news early. That would leave the NHL and all their contracted players abiding by the NHL/NHLPA plan for how to proceed for now.
The instructions for players are to stay in their NHL home cities, and the expectation is that in a reasonably short period of time, they will get permission to attend the training facility.
NHL teams have been told that it will be at least one full week -- and perhaps longer -- before they can reopen facilities for players to do small-group skates/workouts.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 15, 2020
And here we run into trouble predicting this because we have two very different countries operating in this time of crisis and they each have their own rules and cultures.
If this short-term return to training comes to pass, the NHL will be set up to return to the ice virtually at a moment’s notice. Is that likely? Can you have players hanging around their training centre indefinitely? Maybe. How many scrimmage games can 35 or 40 guys play?
Why so many? Because unless the NHL teams are going to release select NHL-contracted players who play in the AHL, teams have way more than 23 guys on the roster of NHLers. This is training camp redux, and the Leafs have 22 healthy NHLers, three injured (Jake Muzzin, Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev) And 23 more in the AHL or minor leagues. Of that 23, there are three CHL players who have been sent home, and one, Ian Scott, recovering from surgery. The rest are mostly healthy.
If there is a return to something like normalcy, the NHL has to answer all those questions about the format of play, the playoffs, contracts and what the offseason schedule will be.
And the biggest question could well be this year’s cap, not next year’s. Next year, the league can simply set a figure based on whatever form of revenue projection they care to use, ignoring totally this year’s revenue numbers. I don’t think it’s going to be $88 million, but it might well be the same as this year’s. Particularly if next season starts on time.
This year, the problem is that actual revenues could fall short of the projection that led to the $81.5 million. We obsess over how this year’s actual revenues will affect a formula for guessing at next year’s likely numbers, but the bigger hurdle is the reconciliation that will have to come of this year’s actual HRR (hockey related revenue) where it is split 50/50 between the owners and players, with the players share in actual dollars determining how much of the escrow (the amount deducted from their salary on every paycheque) they get back.
A worst-case scenario with the season never resuming could see that escrow pool being too small to make up the shortfall on the players’ share, and they might actually owe money back. I think we can all imagine how well a plan to make them pay money back in would go over.
Days not Weeks
Most people are doing short-term thinking right now, and for the NHL and the players, that means waiting out the next week or two to see if those practice sessions that are planned become real. Until we at least get to that point, prophesies about the future of this season are about as useful as guessing who would have won that Leafs-Preds game that never was.