Optimism of NHL return survives but plenty of obstacles remain

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit – They’re trying real hard. The NHL and NHL Players Association – through a Return to Play Committee, a combination of representatives from both sides – are meeting regularly to try to resume this paused season.

Whether they’ll be successful remains to be seen. But commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have both expressed optimism in recent days NHL will resume this summer.

It probably won’t look the same, given fans are almost certain not to be in the arenas. And some of the teams aren’t likely to return, given the likelihood the NHL will go straight to the playoffs.

The Red Wings have 11 games left in the regular season.

But given the millions of dollars at stake of having a playoffs for the television networks, the NHL and its players are trying everything they can to resume the season.

“I do believe we are going to complete the 2019-20 season,” Chris Zimmerman, president of the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, said this week. “There are lots of issues for each sport to resolve in the short term with the players association to create a plan that’s going to work. But I feel confident that not only will we complete the season, but that we’ll get the opportunity to defend the Stanley Cup.”

There’s so much to tackle, though – the protocol for testing for coronavirus, how and when to hold training camp, ensuring safety once the games begin. All are topics being covered by the two sides, with the hopes of a satisfactory outcome.

There are several big milestones remaining on the stalled NHL calendar.

Regular season

There’s no doubt the NHL wants to complete this season, as Bettman repeatedly states, but it’s likely the playoffs that will be salvaged and the regular season sacrificed.

There were 189 games, or about 15 percent, of the season that was on the docket when the NHL paused on March 12.

Much was made early about the large amount of time, or “runway,” left for the NHL to resume. But that was in mid-March.

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Now it’s mid-May, and with integrity of next season needing to be preserved, and a full four rounds of playoffs on the way to awarding a Stanley Cup on the wish list – the runway has gotten much smaller.

Because of that, the regular season is looking pretty easy to chop. Too many games with no bearing on the standings, and too many people to test every day, increasing cost and risk.

So, don’t be surprised if you’ve seen the last of the last-place Red Wings for the 2019-20 season.


Various formats are being discussed for the postseason, including 16-, 20- or 24-team tournaments.

Likely, there will be four hub cities with up to six teams in each location. It’s unclear how long they’ll stay in those locations, maybe a round or two, before the playoffs reach the second or third round.

It’s also possible there will be some sort of play-in, maybe best-of-three series, among the bottom-seeded teams.

But a full, four-round, best-of-seven series for the final 16 teams is definitely the goal.

With so much revenue to be earned from the playoffs, the NHL and the Players Association are doing everything they can to ensure a postseason and award the Stanley Cup.

With 53 points, Dylan Larkin was leading the Red Wings in scoring when the season was put on hold.

NHL Draft

The NHL Draft was originally scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal before getting scrapped due to the pandemic.

It was first reported the draft would take place after Labor Day, after the playoffs were completed. But following the success of the NFL Draft, the NHL appeared determined to accelerate the timing and have the draft in early June.

But pushback from the majority of general managers and team executives has apparently stalled the NHL front office.

Most hockey people simply don’t like the idea of having a draft before the end of the season, given that trades would impact the yet-to-be-completed season.

The NHL believes that the entire league would benefit from having the draft in early June, while there is so little in the way of live sports news. But don’t be surprised if it gets pushed back all the way to September or October, shoehorned in before the start of the 2020-21 season.

Free agency

Unrestricted free agency always begins July 1 but will not this summer given the circumstances. The playoffs are likely to be still going on, and those free agents will be playing for their teams.

Once the playoffs are done the NHL can get to the business of free agency. But that’s a way off right now.

2020-21 season

It’s easy to forget there will be a 2020-21 season too, and the NHL has stated time and again that playing an 82-game schedule next season is important and necessary.

But the timetable on that is flexible, as well; the NHL is comfortable beginning the 2020-21 season in November or December. There would likely be no All-Star weekend, and the bye weeks would be eliminated.

But first things first, and that’s figuring out how to wrap up this season.


Twitter @tkulfan