Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement

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The NHL and NHLPA made the return official: hockey is back.

Remarkably, the NHL and NHLPA also extended the Collective Bargaining Agreement through at least 2025-26, ensuring almost unthinkable labor peace for fans. None of this means that COVID-19 won’t wreck the party, but the NHL and NHLPA cemented those return details on Friday.

The timetable for the NHL return won’t leave much room to breathe. Players can opt-out of a return-to-play plan for a variety of reasons, but must make such decisions by Monday, July 13 at 5 p.m. ET.

This comes shortly after the two sides announced a memorandum of understanding earlier this week. The NHL attempting a two-city, 24-team playoff plan is bold enough; extending the CBA through at least 2025-26 makes this an incredible achievement. For hockey fans who’ve grown accustomed to lockouts, lasting labor peace feels almost unthinkable.

If hockey fans need more reasons to be ecstatic, consider this. The CBA extension sets the stage for NHL players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. That decision hinges on an agreement between the league and the International Olympic Committee, but this is a landmark day for the future of the NHL.

[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

Read more about the NHL return via this official document:

NHL playoff hubs in Edmonton and Toronto; 2020 Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton

After many twists and turns, Edmonton and Toronto were named as the two hub cities. Each city will host 12 teams (limited to 52 personnel apiece). Edmonton will hold the 12 Western Conference teams, and is also the planned spot for the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, the 12 Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto.

With COVID-19 spikes in areas like Las Vegas and protocol stumbles in Vancouver, it’s been difficult to forecast which cities would serve as the two hubs. Now we know. Edmonton, in particular, has avoided the worst of COVID-19 outbreaks. Toronto’s dealt with more struggles (see: the outbreaks in Ontario in the map below), but brings some strengths for the NHL while not being hit as hard as many problem areas in the U.S.:

Alberta with 8,482 cases; Ontario with 36,178 as of Thursday (via the Canadian government)

[More on Edmonton and Toronto serving as NHL playoff hubs.]

Now, for the when: Key Dates for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL Free Agency, Draft

So, we just covered the “where” for the NHL’s playoff return to award a 2020 Stanley Cup. Let’s cover the “when.”

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out
July 26: Teams report to their hub city
July 28-30: Exhibition games
Aug 1: Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4)
Aug 10: Phase 2 of NHL Draft Lottery to determine No. 1 overall pick
Aug 11: First Round begins
Aug 25: Second Round begins
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded
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

All of dates listed are, of course, tentative.

[Want even more details on critical dates for the NHL return? Click here.]

CBA extension keeps NHL salary cap flat for at least 2020-21

NHL, NHLPA hammer out a CBA extension, including flat salary cap and return to Olympics

Again, these agreements don’t just cover a playoff format where the 2020 Stanley Cup would be awarded. The CBA extension means lockout prevention through 2025-26, and possibly even 2026-27. That CBA extension sets the stage for the NHL’s return to the Olympics, pending an agreement with the IOC.

Consider some of the high points. You can read more about the flat cap and other financial details here.

  • It’s possible that the two sides could extend the CBA for one additional season (through 2026-27).
  • The two sides agreed to a flat $81.5 million salary cap for 2020-21.
  • That $81.5 million mark could also stick for multiple seasons. It all hinges on whether or not revenue bounces back — and when.
  • Players hate escrow, so limiting its impact was key. There will be a 20-percent cap on escrow for 2020-21. From there, escrow will scale down until it drops to six percent.
  • The two sides agreed to bring NHL players back to Olympic competition — pending negotiations with the International Olympic Committee. If that goes through, NHL players would participate in 2022 Winter Olympics (in Beijing) and the 2026 Winter Olympics (in Milan).
  • Players will defer salary to account for the financial impact of COVID-19.
  • The CBA extension accounts for certain salary cap loopholes. In short, contracts won’t be as front-loaded, salary bonuses won’t be greatly changed, and no-trade clauses will be honored more faithfully.

So, again fans: rejoice, and hold your breath. Maybe cross your fingers, too — especially in hopes that this process happens as safely as possible. This is huge stuff, and PHT will cover the developments as they unfold.

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.

NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M; bad news for big spenders, free agents

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With the CBA extended through 2025-26 as part of the NHL’s larger return-to-play plan, we now know that the salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for at least the 2020-21 NHL season.

From there, most signs point to a snail-like pace for the NHL salary cap ceiling, if it moves at all. Much like many other factors, that’s subject to change. If the NHL’s finances can bounce back quickly from the impact of COVID-19, then who knows?

But … most likely, a flat $81.5M NHL salary cap (and a slowly rising one) looks like bad news for both the league’s biggest spenders and free agents hoping to cash in.

The two sides took these measures to try to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. In trying to roll with those punches, certain sacrifices must be made. And that means that some big market teams will need to tighten their belts, rather than wielding the full power of fat wallets.

Let’s jump into some of the details

Flat $81.5M salary cap for 2020-21 NHL season; Limited movement after that

As a reminder, the 2019-20 salary cap ceiling sits at $81.5M. The NHL’s salary cap could remain flat at $81.5M for some time; it’s penciled in that way for at least 2020-21.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Upper Limit = $81.5 Million
  • Midpoint = $70.9 Million
  • Lower Limit = $60.2 Million

So, for at least a while, the salary cap will not be tied directly to a 50-50 split in revenue. This is a change from how business operated (and the salary cap was calculated) for NHL teams.

This may only be temporary because the NHL and NHLPA agreed to a point where the salary cap could rise instead of being flat: $4.8 billion in revenue. (That was the projected revenue for 2019-20 before the COVID-19 interruption.)

Granted, there are some ins and outs that might allow minor tweaks, but that’s where things get really granular. If you want to dig deep on the new mechanics that might or might not keep the NHL salary cap flat, check out the full release. Make sure you have your glasses and contacts (and maybe smelling salts).

Flat NHL salary cap could present challenges for plenty of NHL teams, free agents

One would think this might also make it tougher for players to land big second contracts, but we’ll see. Plenty of signs point to a flat/barely climbing salary cap squeezing the NHL’s “middle class” even more than before.

At this point, fans of high-spending teams might beg for “amnesty buyouts.” Unfortunately for those teams, that won’t be a way to get out of salary cap jail.

If the NHL salary cap stays flat or barely moves for years, it could absolutely cause some carnage. Think of how well Seattle could leverage cap-challenged teams during the expansion draft, for example. (You might even pledge that there will be a climate for chaos.)

Salary bonuses, contract terms, and other financial details from NHL CBA extension

Consider the flat $81.5M NHL salary cap the biggest detail of the CBA extension. There are plenty of other elements to consider, including:

  • If all goes to plan, NHL free agency is set for mid-October. Estimates include Oct. 9 or Oct. 11.
  • Players will defer 10 percent of their salaries to make up for pandemic-related financial losses.
  • No-trade and no-movement clauses will “travel” with the player, even if said player gets traded before the clause kicks in. TSN’s Frank Seravalli reminds us of P.K. Subban‘s situation. The Canadiens traded Subban right before his clause kicked in. From there, the Predators weren’t responsible for such a clause, and they eventually traded Subban to the Devils.
  • Salary bonuses will go untouched, which was a sticking point for owners. On the other hand, the NHL took measures to limit “front-loading” contracts.
  • Escrow – a huge sticking point for players, boring for the rest of us — will be limited. The cap for escrow is set at 20 percent for 2020-21, then the plan is to eventually drop it to six percent.
  • The CBA extension very marginally bumps up minimum NHL salaries. Some might say comically so.
  • The CBA extension tweaks cap recapture penalties. Via Michael Russo of the Athletic, there is “no longer a charge greater than the contract’s AAV in any year, but charge continues until the full overage is paid off.”
  • As discussed earlier, prospects like Kirill Kaprizov of the Wild won’t be able to participate in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers or any part of 2019-20. There is the option, however, to sign them in a way that burns a year off of their entry-level contracts. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that teams would get a small window to do so (Monday afternoon through Wednesday afternoon), but it’s unclear if they’d be allowed to participate in training camps if such contracts were signed.

Closing thoughts on the NHL having a flat salary cap for 2020-21

Overall, every bargain contract will be that much more crucial, and every mistake will hurt much more. Which teams do you think will weather these storms, and which ones are in big trouble?

Better make sure you have a good capologist or three, NHL teams.

MORE ON THE NHL RETURN TO PLAY

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.

Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, playoff schedule, draft lottery results

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The NHL seeks to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup despite the COVID-19 pandemic, so with that, Tuesday ranks as a big day.

Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan, which includes a 24-team playoff format involving two “hub cities.” Plenty of dates still need to be determined, but there are key windows, such as “early June” for resuming skating in small groups, and “no earlier than the first half of July” for formal training camps.

Eastern Conference standings (top 12 make cut for NHL 24-team format)

East final NHL standings 2019-20
rankings based on points percentage, via NHL.com

East (City 1) Round Robin for Seeding in First Round (regular season overtime rules apply):
1. Boston Bruins
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Washington Capitals
4. Philadelphia Flyers

East (City 1) – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

[MORE: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

Western Conference standings (top 12 make cut for NHL 24-team format)

West final NHL standings 2019-20
rankings based on points percentage, via NHL.com

West (City 2) – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Vegas Golden Knights
4. Dallas Stars

West (City 2) – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

2020 NHL Draft Lottery Results

The Draft lottery was won by a team involved in the Return to Play plan. That means there will be a Phase 2 drawing featuring the eight losing teams from the Qualifying Round. Those teams will each have a 12.5% chance to the top pick in the drawing, which will be held between the Qualifying Round and the First Round.

1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
========================
9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

If the COVID-19 pandemic forces the NHL to pull the plug on playing games the lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.

Best NHL goals of 2019-20: Ovechkin hits 700; Lots of McDavid, Tkachuk, lacrosse

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Considering all of the hurdles, many wonder if the NHL is wise to embark on its ambitious return-to-play plan. Others simply miss hockey too much to shut the idea down. Wherever you may stand, if you love the sport, you’ll probably be entertained watching more than eight minutes of the best NHL goals from the 2019-20 season so far.

The video of the best NHL goals from the 2019-20 season mixes what you’d expect with what you may have forgotten.

It’s good stuff overall, so check out the video. Which goal ranks as the best from the NHL’s regular season for 2019-20? Did any top candidates miss the cut?

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.

Good, bad, and neutral: Breaking down Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach

Good, bad, neutral of Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach
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The wayward New Jersey Devils took major steps to chart a clearer course on Thursday — for better or worse. Tom Fitzgerald saw the “interim” tag lifted, making Fitzgerald their established GM. In tandem with that decision, the Devils hired veteran bench boss Lindy Ruff as their head coach.

Ultimately, we only know so much about Fitzgerald’s vision. He’s certainly put in his reps, especially as an assistant GM (first with the Penguins starting in 2009, then the Devils in 2015). Beyond that, we can only speculate regarding how Fitzgerald wants to rebuild New Jersey. Aside from what we can occasionally parse through buzzwordy quotes.

But is Lindy Ruff really the best fit for Devils head coach? Considering Ruff’s decades of experience at head coach and assistant coach levels, we have a lot of evidence to sort through.

Let’s tackle the Ruff – Devils fit question by looking at it three ways: the good (experience), the bad (recent results), and the neutral (some underlying stats and arguments).

The Good: If nothing else, the Devils gain experience with Lindy Ruff as head coach

Ruff served as an NHL head coach for 19 seasons, with his 1,493 games coached ranking seventh all-time. Ruff’s 736 wins place him sixth in league history, which will be a sexier talking point than a middling .561 career points percentage.

You can debate how well Ruff changed with the times, but he’s absolutely been employed as the style and pace of the NHL game twisted and turned over decades.

It’s worth noting that Ruff coached some very different teams. His early Sabres tenure revolved around forming a defensive shell around Dominik Hasek, without a lot of offensive support around him (sorry, Miroslav Satan, etc.). Yet, in that same market, Ruff presided over the “Buffaslug” era of the Sabres, when a run-and-gun team starring the likes of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury contended and even topped the NHL in scoring with 308 goals in 2006-07.

That wasn’t the only Ruff team that led the NHL in scoring. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn helped his Dallas Stars accomplish that feat with 267 goals in 2015-16.

So, for myself and others, the most reasonable best-case scenario with Ruff is for the Devils to emulate some of those high-flying teams. It’s not totally outrageous to imagine Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, and others getting rejuvenated by throwing caution to the wind.

The Neutral: How much did any of it hinge on Ruff?

Sure, when you zoom out, it’s easy to see how experienced Ruff is. That might make the Devils feel like hiring Ruff is the “safe” decision.

But it gets harder to hammer the upside when you look at recent results, or even his larger resume. Ruff comes out looking a lot like an older Paul Maurice: a lot of volume, yet about as many lows and “mehs” as highs.

(And the highs were limited. That one 1999 Stanley Cup Final appearance, a handful of deeper runs, and three division titles over 19 seasons. Ruff doesn’t look awful, yet it’s hard to understand why the Devils wouldn’t be more excited about, say, Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, or Bruce Boudreau. Maybe Ruff’s a lot cheaper?)

Averaging out between the brightest and bleakest scenarios, what if Ruff ends up being merely neutral — not good or bad, mainly replacement level? Is that really what the Devils need right now?

Ruff gives off the impression of being pliable, maybe versatile, if nothing else. There could be value in a pragmatic coach who will zig and zag depending upon the makeup of upcoming Devils teams. Considering how much turnover could happen with the Devils, that could be a useful attribute.

The Bad: Ugly recent results for Ruff with Rangers don’t scare off Devils

Don’t expect Ruff to wave a magic wand and make the Devils a top-10 defense, though. Not based on recent results.

The Rangers brought Ruff in ostensibly to help run the defense and their penalty kill units. Ruff … didn’t exactly solve their problems.

Yikes!

That’s not to say those issues were all Ruff’s fault. For one thing, Ruff merely served as an assistant. He didn’t necessarily get a full say in certain strategic decisions.

Even considering those caveats, the underlying numbers generally look somewhere between neutral to flat-out bad for Ruff. Devils management doesn’t have much of an argument for Ruff beyond bleating out “experience!”

Really, this duo of Devils decisions makes me feel dubious about the direction of the franchise.

For years, the Devils made progress on the analytics front. Hiring bright minds like Matt Cane seemed quite promising.

With these recent decisions in mind, I can’t help but wonder what Cane and his cohorts think. It’s possible they’re on board with this decision, but it doesn’t really seem as innovative as they’d likely prefer.

When the Rangers hired Ruff as an assistant in 2017, Adam Herman wrote about hockey’s “cronyism” problem. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the Devils are merely leaning on “200 hockey men” and other antiquated ideas. A rebuilding situation gives teams opportunities to innovate, and set the foundation for future glories.

Maybe Ruff and the Devils will prove such feelings wrong, but as of now, it sure looks like these decisions are rooted in the past.

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.