Despite the fact that it is now the backend of September and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are in the final round — just a handful of days from what would’ve been the October season openers in any other year — League Commissioner Gary Bettman remains certain that the 2020-21 season will be a full 82 games and the 2021 playoffs will return to the previous format.
“I anticipate playing a full season next season, 82 games, full playoffs,” Commissioner Bettman said during his annual press conference ahead of the Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning. “How and when we do that is something that we don’t all have enough information to make any decisions, and anything would just be sheer speculation. Our goal is to get back to as greatest sense of normalcy as possible under whatever circumstances are presented.”
The league will have to be flexible, if other leagues are any indication. Reports earlier this summer indicated the NHL would be more interested in getting fans in arenas by the start of next season than for playoffs (especially as the bubble plans began to move forward), but where the country will be, and where individual cities will be, is still largely undetermined.
“There is still so much we don’t know,” Bettman said. “Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States is going to be open by a date certain. Nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be. Nobody can tell me whether or not our arenas will be able to have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings.”
The NHL had been eyeing a December 1 return, which would see the league lose approximately a month in the break between the Cup Final and opening night. It wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, a tournament held in September. However, players have gone on the record saying that the following season was harder to recover from. Then again, they didn’t have the time off created by shelter-in-place orders, either.
Unfortunately, that does still leave the start date for next season as a bit of a moving target. The logistics of cross contamination and potential exposures when it comes to creating a bubble versus traveling in the regular season — and that’s before taking into account what the travel requirements of the condensed schedule will do to the players’ immune systems. A tournament is a much easier task, even if it’s still a massive undertaking.
And if it doesn’t get any less complicated, it might even cause the start of the season to delay the Winter Classic between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, scheduled for January 1 in Minneapolis.
Which would almost certainly mean another year of last summer playoffs? Bettman doesn’t seem to think so.
“My preference would be to stay out of summer as much as possible. Our fans typically like watching us through the fall, winter and into the spring, and it’s always been a goal to be done by the end of June,” said Bettman. “Playing in late July, August and September was important to do now. If we can avoid it we will, but it’s premature to have an answer other than we understand the issue and we’re going to try to deal with it as best we can.”
I can’t imagine a way, in a world without a coronavirus vaccine, that the NHL will be able to conduct some semblance of a regular season in December (a difficult enough month as it is) and fit in 82 games without some serious wear and tear scheduling and not be playing hockey into July, at the least. But it sounds like it’s going to be awhile before I’ll get to see the math on that one.