Roundtable: Constructing 2020-21 NHL season format

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How would you construct the NHL’s 2020-21 season schedule? Keep it the same? One year realignment? You’re in charge.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: First and foremost, safety would be my focus. For all the focus (understandably) on the lethality of COVID-19, people often forget that bodily impacts can be devastating even for survivors. Think about that for NHL players whose careers may never be the same; then think about if they were exposed to COVID-19 because the league tried to overextend to maximize profits.

And that’s really the tug-o-war here. The NHL is an especially perilous position because, as much as we want to compare hockey to the NFL or MLB, games happen indoors in rinks. (Yes, there are outdoor games, but how many can you logistically pull off beyond [admittedly splendid] novelty events?)

So, my instinct would be to lean as closely to the playoff bubble setup as possible. Set up multiple hubs, maybe settling on revenue sharing for all teams involved in said hubs if fans are actually in attendance.

But the dream of teams operating their own buildings on a wider scale with a lot of fans? That’s not how I would do it.

It’s crucial to limit traveling. When you look at how things unraveled for MLB, it’s because they were overly ambitious. The NFL had many of the same problems.

If you set up mini-bubbles, you could roll the dice fewer times. Personally, I’d indeed go with an All-Canada division, and split hubs up based on areas that are less affected by COVID. If that means that the divisions are, say, far more saturated toward specific parts of the U.S., then so be it. (Really, if it’s all Canadian hubs again? Hey, these are unprecedented times.

Considering the difficulties at hand, I’d also want to make the regular season brief. Let’s be honest: a typical 82-game season is a slog anyway. Falling in the 48-game range wouldn’t make everyone happy, yet it increases the chances of getting through a season with as many people as possible healthy.

[MORE: NHL reportedly wants players to defer more money from 2020-21 season]

So, the tl;dr version:

• Hubs that operate as close to the Edmonton and Toronto ones as possible. Yes, that stinks for bored players, but pandemics stink a whole lot. Sorry, gang. Maybe sponsors could at least work to add some perks?

• Hubs rather than all 31 NHL teams, or close to that, operating their own arenas.

• An All-Canadian Division, or even a lot of teams operating in Canada, because international travel will likely remain a challenge.

• 48-game regular season.

• Maybe something comfortable to the playoff bubble setup for the actual 2020-21 season?

Look, I’m not a schedule-maker. I’m not a master of logistics. And I don’t have each team’s accounting information in front of me. But maximum safety would be the name of the game if I were in charge.
(In that scenario, we’d all be broke … but maybe fewer of us would need ventilators? Who knows, really?)
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Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: This season has to be a one year realignment. There are still too many unknowns at this time, especially with the Canadian-American border being closed and who knows for how long.

Once this is established, there has to be a Canadian Division as well as three American Divisions.

The Canadian Division is obvious and once you eliminate the seven teams from Canada, that leaves 24 in the United States.

The best bet is a Northeast Division comprising of the Islanders, the Rangers, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston and Buffalo.

The West will have Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Vegas, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis.

While it isn’t a perfect way to do things (and there isn’t a perfect way) the rest of the teams go into the Central. That includes Carolina, Columbus, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Florida.

I like what the NBA is doing in releasing half the schedule shortly and then the remainder during the 2020-21 season. I think the NHL should do it the same way as you don’t know how many, if any, games will need to be re-scheduled, and what the situation of the coronavirus will be.

There is no correct answer but everyone wants NHL hockey back, as soon as it is safe to do so.

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

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: It’s already a given that the 2020-21 NHL season will be a unique one and hopefully never constructed like it will be. As the league and players work on financial issues which will probably delay any plans for a Jan. 1 start, how the schedule will look will be another issue to solve.

The two hubs worked to great success for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Players won’t go for that sort of lock down again, but doing shorter-term hubs could work. Multiple spots across the U.S. and Canada — maybe one per division — and the players will play two weeks of games, go home for a week, then back for another set of games. Make it a 48-60 game schedule with a traditional 16-team playoff.

The other intriguing option is going with a two-phased schedule. Plan out the first half of games and then see where the world is in a few months and if it’s safe to increase travel and have the ability to bring fans in buildings, depending on local government regulations.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: The only thing I know is that I am glad I am speaking in hypotheticals for me and that I am not the one that has to make the final decision on this because there does not seem to be a right answer here.

But since you asked…

The first thing here is you probably have to ditch the idea of an 82-game schedule at this point. That was always going to be a challenge given the calendar even if things were going perfectly in the outside world. Maybe you reduce it down to a 64-game season or a 60-game season.

From there, the temporary divisional realignment seems to be the way to go. Shorten the schedule, cut down on travel, keep things as close as possible.

I also like the idea of splitting the season into two parts.

Start the first part in a hybrid bubble setting for the first half (two weeks in the bubble, 10 days off) and try to replicate the 2019-20 restart as much as possible without having to keep players in a bubble for six months (which would never be approved anyway). Then, depending on where things are after the first 30 games, maybe you can put teams back in their home arenas and go from there.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The biggest question mark at this point seems to be whether the NHL will implement a modified hub format – where teams come to a central location and play several games in a concentrated time period, then go to their home cities for a break, rinse and repeat – or whether clubs will play in their own arenas per “normal.” Given so much of that decision making is intertwined with local/state/national policies, I’ll instead focus on some of the more format-based items and propose a few ideas:

First, division re-alignment appears to be a must because of the US-Canada border issue. So, to guarantee a complete schedule for the seven Canadian teams, I’m in favor of an all-Canada division, with the remaining 24 American teams broken up based on geographic proximity into three divisions of eight teams each. In this scenario, because the Canadian teams would be exclusively playing against each other, fairness and consistency would dictate that every other division should do the same.

Here’s my plan for getting this done: teams in the Canadian division would play a 48-game regular season (each team plays its six opponents eight times), while teams in the U.S. would play a 49-game regular season (each team plays its seven opponents seven times). The top four teams in each division make the postseason. If the playoff format required seeding across divisions, points percentage could be used to rank teams that played a different number of games.

I’ll stop there given the variables that would re-enter the equation at that time. Will the playoffs once again take place in hub cities? Will border travel be any different? How far along in the COVID-19 vaccine process will North America be?

As with many of the matters pertaining to NHL Return to Play: Part 2 … only time will tell.