If it seems hard to believe that the NHL plans to start the 2020-21 season in less than a month, that’s because it is.
While the NHL has maintained that its goal is to drop the puck on New Year’s Day, with no start date set, dozens upon dozens of players still overseas, and a pandemic still spreading at a rapid rate, that timeline seems, at best, unrealistic.
Still, speaking earlier this week at the Sports Business Journal’s Dealmakers In Sport panel, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seemed somewhat hopeful that a restart would happen sooner than later.
“That is a work in progress influenced largely by what we’re hearing from the medical experts,” Bettman said. “We are taking our time and making sure that as we look for ways to move forward, we’re focused on health and safety and doing the right things.”
In the meantime, Wild general manager Bill Guerin is in a holding pattern. He spoke with reporters on Thursday and emphasized that he doesn’t plan to set a mandatory return date for his players until he gets more clarity from the league.
Here’s what we know so far:
How long will the season be?
While the start date for the NHL is still up in the air, so too is the length of the season. Logically, the longer it takes for the season to get started, the shorter the season will be.
Whether that means a season of 50, 60 or 70 games — or some number in between — remains to be seen.
Perhaps the only thing that can be assumed is that a typical 82-game season seems highly unlikely at this point. Especially considering the NHL probably will want to award the Stanley Cup before the Olympics in Tokyo start up in late July.
When will training camp start?
Some teams, like the Wild, already have a handful of players back in their respective cities working out. Meanwhile, a good chunk of players in the league is still overseas, and unless they take a private charter back, they will have to quarantine upon their return, per NHL rules.
More than likely, that means training camp won’t start until a couple of weeks after a start date is finally set. That would give players a chance to return to their respective cities and quarantine for the necessary amount of time.
It’s unclear whether it will be a truncated training camp, or whether preseason games will be played at all. Is that a cause for concern as far as getting everyone to agree on a start date?
“Not at all,” Guerin said. “We are all in the same boat. All the teams are going to be dealing with the same situations. Let’s get back together for however long they give us and we will be ready to go. If we start to overthink things like that, we are just going to be getting in our own head.”
Will there be hub cities?
Regardless of how effective this format was throughout the playoffs, it seems as if the NHL will have teams travel this season much like the NFL has done, and like the NBA plans to do.
Asked if he thinks the season can be completed without a bubble, Guerin gave his personal vote of confidence for the league, while admitting there likely will be some bumps along the way.
“I think using common sense and being responsible is the most important thing,” Guerin said. “I believe in our players and the people that work in the National Hockey League, and they will do what we have to do, and we will all do what we have to do to have success.”
Will there be new divisions?
it seems like some sort of realignment will be necessary this season.
That’s because, with the pandemic still raging, the Canada-United States border is closed to nonessential travel, and that includes NHL teams. That restriction will remain in place until the pandemic is under control, and thus, the only logical solution is a temporary realignment.
In the case of the Central Division, for example, the Wild usually play the Winnipeg Jets multiple times through the season. That likely won’t be an option this season.
So what would realignment look like? It’s purely speculation at this point, though it seems like a model similar to what the MLB used this past season would make the most sense. That would result in teams getting grouped together based on proximity as a way to limit lengthy travel, with something along the lines of East, West, Central and Canadian divisions.
How are the Wild holding up?
It was a busy offseason for the Wild, to say the least. Gone is longtime captain Mikko Koivu, and veterans Devan Dubnyk and Eric Staal were traded away, along with up-and-comers like Luke Kunin and Ryan Donato.
There are a lot of new faces in the mix, including goaltender Cam Talbot, who signed a deal in free agency, and top prospect Kirill Kaprizov, who is finally in the Twin Cities after seemingly endless anticipation. There’s also an outside chance No. 9 overall draft pick Marco Rossi makes the team out of training camp.
It will be interesting to see how those pieces mesh with the core that already is in place.
“I talked to a few players, and they seemed excited,” Guerin said. “Sometimes change is good. We have a lot of players that have been here for a long time, and when that happens, it can be stale for them as well. I think having some new faces in the dressing room and new guys to play with will change things up a bit.”
All the Wild can do right now, though, is wait until the NHL gives them the next steps.
“The good thing is that when we get back, and when we get out on the rink and drop the puck, the game hasn’t changed,” Guerin said. ” It’s the game of hockey, and that’s the biggest thing. I don’t think anybody is going to forget how to play.”