Some possibilities for what the 2020-21 NHL season could hold began to crystalize on Tuesday morning when ESPN reported what they've heard regarding next year.
This year — due to the COVID-19 pandemic — the NHL paused on March 12, leaving teams with about 70 of the usual 82 regular season games completed.
The restart, under the NHL's Return to Play program, began as a 24-team postseason tournament and has been occurring for a little over a month now with bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
Through several rounds of testing, zero players and members of teams' 52-person travelling parties have tested positive for COVID-19.
For next year, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly said the league will look to restore an 82-game season, even if it runs a little bit later than it usually does.
The NHL and NHLPA tentatively agreed to a Dec. 1 start date for 2020-21, with training camps starting on Nov. 17. According to ESPN, team executives think that with such a late start it would be very difficult to get 82 games in.
"We all realize an 82-game schedule for next season is a pipe dream. It's just not going to happen," one team business exec told ESPN.
An NHL exec told the outlet he expects a season with 60-65 games next year.
ESPN also stated the American Hockey League, which feeds into the NHL, is preparing for a shorter season. It pushed its start date back from Oct. 9 to Dec. 4.
As far as fans in the arenas for next season goes, teams have been strategizing and preparing for different scenarios since the pause in March.
One NHL team exec told ESPN they're preparing for three different possible scenarios: no fans in the building, starting with no fans then progressively increasing to 50% and later reaching 90%, and a third and more hopeful scenario with the arena opening with fans and the progression being 50% to 75% to 90% capacity.
Former Sportsnet analyst and NHL TV executive John Shannon recently reported that the NHL and the NHLPA were discussing a proposal involving four bubble cities, rotating all 31 teams through the four venues in eight-game increments for next season.
"I don't think our current format for bubbles would work for the regular season, particularly because our objective is to play a full season and I'm not sure how we do that in the format we're currently utilizing," NHL deputy commissioner BIl Daly recently told NHL.com. "It's already a significant amount of time just to complete our playoffs in that type of bubble format. I don't think it's going to look like what we're currently doing, but could it be a variation of what we're currently doing."
As with the future in general, a lot remains to be seen with how things will unfold due to the pandemic, but at least possibilities are being drawn out and it's good news that the league has been able to hold its postseason tournament without incident so far.