NHL working hard on 2020-21 schedule options, hoping not to ‘rush’ decision

NHL working hard on 2020-21 schedule options, hoping not to 'rush' decision
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When discussing possible NHL options for a 2020-21 season, much of the focus has been on “Where?” Yet, when it comes to logistics and making the schedule work, “When?” is another key factor for next season’s schedule.

NHL still hopes for Jan. 1 start to 2020-21 schedule, but much can change

As much as fans, NHL teams, and everyone involved would like answers now, the biggest takeaway from Bill Daly’s NHL Rink interview is that it’s all a work in progress. And the work isn’t easy.

Interestingly, Daly still mentions Jan. 1 as the hopeful start date for when the 2020-21 NHL schedule can kick off. It remains a hope, though, while plans are as fluid as the COVID-19 rates can be in different regions.

Pandemic realities could force the NHL to mix and match setups, including doing both modified “bubble”/hub cities and also having teams operate in their own arenas — with or without fans. (Daly told NHL Rink that teams prefer to operate in their buildings, whether fans are there or not. For whatever that’s worth.)

Ultimately, the NHL needs to be willing to improvise. That goes for schedule and venue planning now, and possibly also during the 2020-21 NHL season.

“We have to build in flexibility for the hiccups that we expect will come along and have to expect will come along with potential COVID positives and contact tracing requirements,” Daly said, via the NHL Rink podcast. “Some of the difficulties that [Major League] Baseball went through and some of the difficulties that the NFL is currently dealing with, how do we address those situations in the context of our own schedule? Those are all the things we’re working on and those are all the things that keep us all up at night as we try to figure this out.”

Pondering potential timelines for NHL 2020-21 schedule, including training camps

As fans, it’s reasonable to be laser-focused on the most important parts of the 2020-21 NHL schedule. In particular, people want to know when the games start to count.

From a logistical standpoint, the NHL has other fish to fry.

As Daly notes, you don’t just have to pinpoint the Jan. 1 opening date as a wishful starting point. You also need to ponder training camp, travel, and other factors even before the first games count.

“Look, we know there is some urgency here, there is some urgency for making decisions, and while we want to drop the puck on Jan. 1 we also recognize that we’re not going to rush into a bad decision just to make it … ” Daly said.

” … Realistically, if we’re going to start in the first part of January, mandatory training camps are going to have to start in the middle part of December. In some of our markets there continue to be quarantine requirements associated with players coming into town, so you factor those in and you back it up from there. I would ultimately concur with the conclusion that time is getting short.”

Challenging to make pieces fit

Indeed, being that it’s already mid-November, that would not give the NHL a ton of time to put everything together.

Being that seven NHL teams weren’t involved in the 24-team Return to Play format, it’s been mentioned that those teams may get an extra week of training camp. In the interest of fairness, that seems reasonable.

Yet, in the interest of making all of these pieces work? Consider that week yet another inconvenient Tetris block to wedge into other considerations. (Maybe the NHL should say: “Hey, those are the breaks when your team isn’t very competitive?”)

In an ideal world, the NHL would get full or close-to-full training camps in before the 2020-21 season schedule begins.

Excuse the echoes of Allen Iverson being incredulous about practice, but is it fair to look at training camps as one of the most expendable factors in all of this? Realistically, the NHL might want to consider compromises in that area, too.

After all, fitting in anything close to an 82-game season already seems unlikely for the NHL in 2020-21. But when you think about some of the other puzzle pieces that need to fit together, you need to start valuing different shapes and sizes. Consider:

  • While the NHL shrugged off the Summer Olympics as a drop-dead date for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, it has to at least be in their minds, right? Going deep into the summer doesn’t seem ideal.
  • Plenty of rumors indicate that the NHL wouldn’t want to go any lower than 48 games for the 2020-21 season schedule.
  • Figuring out how to handle payment for players could be a huge issue, especially after they already deferred payment for the Return to Play.
  • If the NHL doesn’t use hub cities for very long, or those hubs end up being less effective, how will the NHL handle potential outbreaks? It’s one thing for the NFL, where teams play one game per week. What about the NHL, with a schedule that could be disrupted, being that there could be four per week?

The answers may keep changing

Ultimately, what Bill Daly, Gary Bettman, and other NHL executives believe today could change tomorrow. As Golden Knights owner Bill Foley blurted out, some ideas called for an All-Canadian division, and a Feb. 1 start.

Looking back, Vegas ranked as a top pick as an NHL playoff hubuntil it was not. The way COVID rates can balloon, the NHL will likely be playing it by ear for the 2020-21 season schedule. Which is why it’s so difficult to speculate about a start date.

Yet, with the needle the NHL is trying to thread to make this all work, it’s also urgent to roll this out quickly. But also carefully.

(Wipes sweat off brow in sympathy.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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