Today the NHL announced the extension of what they’re calling Player Development Agreements, but what we usually call transfer agreements.

Transfer Agreements and a new CHL deal

These deals between the NHL and the national hockey systems and leagues in various countries involve the transfer of players (and money from the NHL) and govern the rules on the signing of drafted players and free agents. The agreements set out who can play where, when, and also how long draft rights last. The notable and continuing exception from this list of nations is Russia. Some other countries who have produced a very small number of NHL players are also not governed by an agreement. The Swiss agreement, rumoured several days ago, is the only new deal.

The other agreement extended is the one with the Canadian junior leagues (OHL, WHL, QMJHL). This was set to expire this summer, and there have been rumblings for years that changes were to be made. Fans care about one thing, and one thing only: will they allow players younger than 20 to play in the AHL? The answer for next season is no, but the resistance to that change has always been very strong from the junior teams. They don’t want to see their stars vanish sooner than they have to give them up.

The other big issue that gets discussed and never acted on is a change to the draft age. There is a movement to raise the age to 19 under the idea that almost no players are good enough to make the NHL right out of the draft. In the 2019-2020 season, Kaapo Kakko, Kirby Dach and Jack Hughes were the only 2019 drafted players to play in the NHL.

The timing of the draft

As for this year’s draft, there is no official word on how Gary Bettman’s “trial balloon” about holding the draft in June has landed. In a story published on April 27, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski reported on the current state of the planning for the draft, which will happen for sure at some point, and the rest of the 2019-2020 season, which might.

Wyshynski seems to think an early June draft is likely:

If the NHL opts to hold the draft around June 5 — and again, when Bettman “suggests” something, the general managers usually take it to mean that it’s going to happen — then the draft lottery will be held without the regular season having been completed. Several NHL sources said they expect the draft order would be determined by points percentage at the point in which the season was paused.

Return to play

As for the season resuming, the league and the players are starting to get deep in the weeds of the details of how this could work using their four hubs scheme where each group gathers and plays up to the point, one presumes, there are only four teams left. But it’s not guaranteed that the divisions would determine the groups:

Bettman said these NHL arenas “won’t necessarily be divisionally based” but rather regionally friendly for teams to travel there. The plan “presumes there wouldn’t be fans in the building,” he noted.

As has been reported, there is a Return to Play Committee that includes (per ESPN) Don Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, his assistant Mahieu Schneider, the general counsel of the NHLPA Don Zavelo, player representative Steve Webb and five current players, including John Tavares. These player and union representatives meet with Bettman and league executives by phone to discuss the details of how they might resume play.

No one should think this is going to be easy to sort out or get done quickly. Reading through ESPN’s comprehensive story, it’s clear the NHL is looking for four sites that can act as a bubble the teams can stay inside for the duration of the season and playoffs... or until that simply becomes unnecessary.

This is not being met with universal approval. Beyond people who think the NHL season should be cancelled now, not merely postponed (and potentially cancelled at some later date, it needs to be emphasized), players are coming to grips with the realities of what might be asked of them. Some of them seem to not like it.

The top story in my local paper this morning was this one:

COVID-19 outbreak at Greenhill Produce with 22 confirmed cases | London Free Press
Twenty-two workers at Greenhill Produce have tested positive for COVID-19, making the greenhouse operation in Kent Bridge the site of Chatham-Kent’s biggest outbreak.

We now know this outbreak is at least 40 cases. All these workers had gone through 14 days of isolation after arrival in Canada, leaving their families for months, but one was infected through the local community, the health unit reports.

A bubble only protects you if you stay inside it. And this is what the NHL will need experts to help them sort out: Can they find a location with low community incidence of the disease and a format for playing that protects everyone inside their bubble? And when can that happen — in time to fit in at least the playoffs, or will they ultimately decide it’s not possible?

Even if they do decide to cancel this season entirely, they are ready to sort out how and when to start next season, and they’ve also got stronger ties between the NHL and the NHLPA than we’ve seen in a very long time. That bodes well for a new CBA appearing without a labour stoppage. Remember when we were all so sure there’d be a lockout? That seems laughable to consider now.

NHL hockey without an AHL

Also on April 27, the AP reported that the AHL is quite likely to cancel their season and playoffs. This is yet another thorny issue the NHL will need to sort out. If the AHL isn’t playing, and we may see them start next season later than the NHL as well, how do you have big enough NHL rosters to allow for injuries? The proposal of a “taxi squad” has been made by many people.

The concept is similar to the “black aces” teams have in the playoffs. But if there is a regular season, the salary cap blocks this from happening easily, even though there is no roster limit. There’s no clarity on how exactly this would be done.

There is no clarity on any of it beyond the obvious statement from Gary Bettman that no one is planning to put games on in front of fans.

In an interview with the Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Lisa MacLeod, she gave a time frame of four to six weeks for a report to be finished by two expert panels, both led by former Ottawa Senators executive Cyril Leeder. One is reporting on a return for amateur sport, and one professional. The expectation from MacLeod is that the federal, provincial and municipal governments will all be involved with professional leagues in making these decisions.

What’s next?

If there is going to be a lottery and then a draft within the next six weeks, we’ll hear about that soon. Otherwise, it’s wait and see how fast the world gets safer, but we were doing that anyway.

Update from Insider Trading:

  • Player self-isolation to be extended to mid-May is the expectation
  • NHL and NHLPA to do a cost analysis of a season resumption and decide if that’s worthwhile
  • LeBrun says there is talk of delaying next season into December — contingent on if this season can be played
  • The 2019-2020 season playing into October is “on the table”
  • The decision on the draft in June might wait to next week per McKenzie, and currently the feeling is not optimistic on that happening
  • The biggest question of all: What will they do once they resume playing and someone related to the game tests positive remains unanswered/