However, with both the NHL and NHL Players’ Association in talks, here is what is under consideration and the timetable for some of these decisions.
When will next season start?
The NHL hopes to open next season as early as Jan. 1. The league had already pushed back this date from Dec. 1, but now appears intent on the January start. The American Hockey League announced in late October that it is targeting Feb. 5 for its start date. If the NHL does start in early January, it is expected that players from the AHL would be available for teams during that gap period, if needed.
When will training camp open?
The dates mandatory training camps will open is still up in the air. Those training camps are expected to last two weeks, but teams that did not take part in the expanded 2020 postseason will get an extra week. If the NHL can hit that Jan. 1 start date, teams would start camp in mid-December.
“Realistically, if we’re going to start in the first part of January, mandatory training camps are going to have to start in the middle part of December,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on the NHL’s @TheRink podcast on Friday. “In some of our markets there continue to be quarantine requirements associated with players coming into town, so you factor those in and you back it up from there. I would ultimately concur with the conclusion that time is getting short.”
How many games will the season be?
The NHL and NHLPA remain in talks about the number of games for next season. The NHL has not officially announced plans to shorten the season, but that does appear likely.
The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that a return-to-play committee, made up of 16 players, has convened several times in the past week.
LeBrun also reported Tuesday that most conversations between both sides have focused on trying to play more than 60 games this upcoming season. Previous reports have signaled that the NHL will not consider anything less than 48 games. The NHL used a 48-game schedule during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season.
“Look, we know there is some urgency here, there is some urgency for making decisions, and while we want to drop the puck on Jan. 1 we also recognize that we’re not going to rush into a bad decision just to make it,” Daly said on the NHL’s podcast. “Whether that Jan. 1 can be a little later, we certainly have flexibility to move it later.”
Where are teams playing? Will there be division realignment?
Daly acknowledged on the NHL’s podcast that the league could opt to open the season using one schedule model and then transition to another later. A couple of those options include having all teams start the season in hubs instead of their home arenas. In this scenario, the hubs would be in cities that are not located in high-risk environments and teams would play a baseball-like schedule. After the NHL staged the 2020 playoffs in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, the league made it clear that they would not put players back in a hub situation for an entire season.
“You’d set up some dedicated space and restaurants for the players without the secure perimeters that we had in the bubble cities,” Daly said on the podcast. “That would be the benefit of hub cities. You would be in a situation where teams would travel in, play a bunch of games over a two-week time period and then be able to go home and spend time with their families and their own local practices facilities for a week, and cycle through a season that way.”
The other option would be for teams to host games in their home arenas like normal. Teams might also transition to this model during the season. Daly indicated some NHL teams prefer to go that route over hubs. However, logistically, all teams may not be able to play in their respective cities — with or without fans — due to coronavirus restrictions.
Closure of the Canada-United States border remains a concern. During a virtual panel discussion last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league might temporarily realign divisions to accommodate travel restrictions.
“It may be that we’re better off, particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said.
Fans or no fans?
The NHL did not allow any fans to attend the 2020 postseason and it is still unclear if fans will be allowed to be in the stands to start the 2021 season.
With local restrictions in place and coronavirus numbers growing worse in North America, it would seem unlikely that fans could return right now, however that could change during the season.
Health and safety restrictions will play a key factor in that decision. For example, in the D.C. market, Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard was asked Tuesday about getting fans back into Capital One Arena — the same arena used by the Washington Capitals. He told reporters that it was dependent on the NBA and local guidelines. In D.C., gatherings of more than 50 people still aren’t allowed.
What are players doing now?
Many NHL players are either still training on their own or in small groups in their hometowns or have returned to their teams’ practice facilities to participate in optional skates. Once the dates for training camps are announced, more players should trickle into their respective home cities.
On the podcast, Daly also said there have been some talks of allowing optional conditioning camps before training camp as well.