Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions
LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

The only certainty about the NHL's return remains is uncertainty.

The league appears to be making progress in its plan to restart the 2019-20 season, which was halted on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but nothing is finalized.

Ideas are being kicked around, hypotheticals have leaked for public consumption and there is even an official "Return to Play" committee that includes the league's brass and representatives of the player's association.

Definitive solutions, however, are absent.

"We're just gathering information just like everybody right now," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said on April 20. "The safety of the people comes first, and once it's safe and there's a protocol in place and we can come back safely, we're going to do that."

Not much has changed in the 20 days since Kekalainen said those words, but information has come out in drips and drabs. It's clear the NHL wants to finish the season without canceling it, but there are no certainties about how to clear the obvious hurdles ahead.

Location, location, location

Among the first mentions of a return included an idea to use a top-notch collegiate facility in a remote locale, perhaps North Dakota, to stage a short training camp and play multiple games per day, televised, without fans in attendance.

That idea, however, was squashed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in an interview with Sportsnet in late April, citing concerns about a collegiate arena not offering NHL-caliber "back of the house" amenities.

More: Griffins goalie Pat Nagle comes 'full circle' with GM Steve Yzerman

What has since emerged is a plan to use four NHL cities as "hubs" for a return that would include training sessions, exhibition games and enough nearby hotels to isolate players, coaches and others essential to operations.

This seems like the most likely scenario the league chooses, and Kekalainen is pitching for Columbus to be one of the hubs.

Regardless of which plan, if any, the NHL settles on, it's not likely fans will be allowed to attend games, which probably would be televised.

Format

Once the NHL gets location hammered out, the next item is figuring out the best way to resume. When the season paused, teams had played unequal numbers of games and both conferences had tight playoff races.

The Blue Jackets, for example, have 81 points in 70 games and were in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The New York Islanders were one point back but had played two fewer games, and thus have a better points percentage.

So which team makes the playoffs if there is no completion of the regular season?

This is one of the best-kept secrets about the NHL's return plans. If the league knows, it hasn't shared the answer publicly and it hasn't leaked.

There are, however, plenty of questions: Will the NHL go straight to the usual 16-team playoff format using the standings as they were on March 12? Will points percentage be used to cut down to 16 teams? Will there be an expanded playoff field? Will they somehow finish the regular season?

These questions have no answers, but they have generated plenty of opinions.

"I'm not so sure that there's a fair way to cut to 16 teams right away," Kekalainen said in April. "That's why I'm saying that if the play continues right from the playoffs, I think it should be expanded."

The players

It behooves both sides, financially, to finish the season, but at what cost to players and their families?

Those whose teams play for the Stanley Cup would likely live in isolation, away from their families, for up to four months. A number of players already have said that's not feasible, but they might have a different opinion when shown the effects of the league losing an estimated $1 billion in revenue by canceling the season.

The league's $81.5 million salary cap might not grow a cent if that happens — and might not anyway — and their take-home salaries could take a major hit via escrow, the league's method of ensuring a 50/50 split of hockey-related revenue.

There also are a number of players waiting out the pandemic overseas. Getting them back to their NHL cities without international travel issues could be a stumbling block.

Draft and free agency

The NHL draft was supposed to be held in Montreal on June 26-27. It was postponed not long after the league's shutdown and a new date hasn't been set.

The league, however, is gauging the response from teams about a possible June 5 start date for a remote draft conducted online, a possibility that has been met with skepticism and anger by some league executives.

The NFL held its draft remotely in April and drew high TV ratings with a captive audience starved for live sports of any kind, so it's not surprising to see the NHL looking to follow suit. If it happens, the lottery would likely be conducted using point percentage and no team would be allowed to move up more than four spots.

But there are many unanswered questions with this scenario, as well.

How can a draft order be determined when all games weren't played? And what of conditional draft picks from previous trades? How would those be hashed out if they're contingent upon the results of a season that wouldn't be completed until months after the draft?

"I have not talked to one GM who likes it, and I talk to almost all of them," veteran agent Allan Walsh told the Associated Press.

General managers reportedly have asked for a one-month notice before holding a draft.

Likewise, the first day of free agency is still set for July 1, which is difficult to see happening under a restart plan that would, theoretically, include playoff games played later the same month. It's likely the start of free agency will be pushed back, perhaps to the fall, after the Stanley Cup is awarded.

That, however, is like everything else related to the NHL right now: Nothing is certain.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE