What will the 2020-21 NHL season look like?

The NHL’s Return to Play has gone smoothly after one month. The games have been compelling and sometimes make you forget that there are no fans in attendance. Most importantly, the league has reported four consecutive weeks with zero positive COVID-19 tests.

There are still three rounds to go and another month-plus of the playoffs before we can look at it as a total success. While we wait to see how this NHL season finishes, what about next season?

We don’t know what the world will look like when the league’s tentative Nov. 17 start date for training camps arrives. Opening the 2020-21 NHL regular season on Dec. 1 is written in pencil, but it’s a target.

But how will next season look? Will teams be flying across North America for games in empty arenas? Is there a scenario where we see multiple bubbles in order to complete a schedule with all 31 teams?

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I don’t want to rule out anything because I think there are so many alternatives and possibilities and ways this might play out,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “I can’t tell you we’ve thought necessarily about a divisional bubble. I don’t think our current format for bubbles would work for the regular season, particularly because our objective is to play a full season and I’m not sure how we do that in the format we’re currently utilizing. It’s already a significant amount of time just to complete our playoffs in that type of bubble format. I don’t think it’s going to look like what we’re currently doing, but could it be a variation of what we’re currently doing. I wouldn’t rule that out any more than I would rule out any number of other alternatives.”

There also would be the question of whether the U.S.-Canada border is still closed come November and if a bubble proposal would feature games in both countries or only one. We won’t have answers for some time and the league has the flexibility to adjust given the global COVID-19 situation.

Daly added that the tentative Dec. 1 start date could be pushed back depending on a number of factors. The NHL will be observing what happens in sports at various levels globally before going forward with next season.

“We don’t have to make that decision today, similar to other decisions we make along the way in this process,” he said. “We want to inform ourselves to the greatest extent possible before making definitive judgments and decisions on things that don’t need to be decided today. We’ll use all those information points, all those data points to make those decisions at an appropriate time.”

NHL Critical Dates calendar (subject to change)

Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct 4: Last possible date to award Stanley Cup
Oct. 9-10: 2020 NHL Draft (must follow end of Cup Final and take place before free agency)
Mid-Oct.: Free agent period opens
Nov. 17: Training camps open for 2020-21 season
Dec. 1: 2020-21 NHL season begins

MORE:
Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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