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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

caufield surgery
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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

matty beniers
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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.