By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
Since the NHL went on pause, joining the other major sports leagues is halting play due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of speculation regarding if, when and how the league would resume play.
Last week, one scenario was shot down. There had been reports that the NHL was exploring neutral sites like North Dakota, New Hampshire and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where teams would be able to report and remain in isolation. The NHL and NHLPA later confirmed that the idea never made it off the drawing board. Instead, the league’s focus has been to find 4-5 neutral locations within the NHL where teams from specific divisions or other new alignments based on what works best would be able to report and play out the regular season and playoffs. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the reason NHL arenas are needed is because of the “back of house” area that they provide, meaning more locker rooms and facilities for teams that meet the standards of the NHL that smaller venues just can’t accomplish.
Wednesday evening brought the latest update from the NHL and NHLPA regarding the possibility of a return to play. The update states:
“Despite numerous reports and speculation over the last several days, the NHL and the NHLPA have not made any decisions or set a timeline for possible return to play scenarios.
“Given recent developments in some NHL Clubs’ local communities, we are now looking ahead to a Phase 2 of the transition period that would follow the currently recommended Phase 1 period of “self-quarantine” by players and hockey staff.
“The precise date of transition to Phase 2, during which players might return to small group activities in NHL Club training facilities, remains undetermined. However, provided that conditions continue to trend favorably — and, subject to potential competitive concerns as between disparately situated markets — we believe we may be able to move to Phase 2 at some point in the mid-to-later portion of May. Specific guidelines governing player and hockey staff activity would be provided at that time. In the meantime, we expect players and hockey staff to continue to adhere to the recommended guidelines put in place when the season was paused on March 12."
The league is also exploring all possibilities to ensure that there are no games lost for the remainder of this season and for next season. The NHL is reportedly willing to push back the resumption of the 2019-20 season and playoffs to a period that would run between July and October, have an abbreviated offseason, then return to start the 2020-2021 season in December.
There are also talks about the possible date of the NHL Draft. The draft was originally scheduled for June 26 and 27, but the league has already announced that it would be postponed. However, after seeing the success the NFL Draft experienced by going virtual and providing sports fans with a live event during an otherwise silent period, the NHL is exploring the possibility of moving the draft up. The most widely-reported target weekend to hold the draft would be June 5 and 6, but there are a lot of hurdles to go through, notably with the draft lottery and any conditional picks. Moving the draft up would also mean that player trades that are common during draft weekend would be non-existent given the lack of knowledge of next season’s salary cap and current contract situations. For these reasons, there is a lot of pushback from NHL GMs about holding the draft early.
As for playing, many in the hockey community believe that a two-week training camp period would be enough for players to get back into game shape on the ice — assuming they have been maintaining off-ice workouts to the best of their ability in this time. The Return to Play Committee will continue to meet regularly to evaluate all possibilities as they attempt to continue the 2019-20 season.