Usually on Thursday afternoons I take this time to publish my weekly Fantasy Nuggets column. Right now though, things are far from normal. We are truly in uncharted territory.
The National Hockey League announced today that they will suspend the season effective immediately because of the coronavirus. In their official statement, they used the word “pause” to describe what’s happening, likely to highlight their hope that play will resume at some point. In fact they outright stated that, “Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup.”
If the season will resume, if the playoffs will happen, and what form it will take are all questions that can’t be answered right now. To be blunt, this is bigger than the NHL. This is bigger than you or me. The world is dealing with pandemic. At the same time, while this has a global impact, this hits each and every one of us on a personal level. The NHL and sports are what we would look towards to offer us with a pleasant distraction from these kinds of events, but the nature of what’s happening prevents that from happening this time. The safety of the players, staff, and all involved has to be prioritized over the sport itself and that’s why the NHL is taking the steps they have.
This so much bigger than me, but if I could focus on just myself for a moment, then I’d like to say that this is the hardest column I’ve ever had to write. I’m going to attempt to look forward to what might happen after the league resumes play – if it happens at all this season – because I just want to hold onto some small sense of normalcy and do my best to share with you what I think might happen once, hopefully, we reach a point where the NHL can say it’s safe to play hockey again.
At that point, the biggest question will be what a resumption of play looks like. The Athletic’s James Mirtle reported that on the optimistic end of the spectrum among people in hockey there’s a hope that play will resume in three to four weeks. At that point, what’s left of the regular season would likely be scrapped and the playoffs would resume. It sounds like that scenario is optimistic, but if that did happen, then the playoffs actually wouldn’t be starting much later than they otherwise would have.
Of course, scrapping what’s left of the season would put some teams in a pretty unfortunate circumstance. It would see a team like the Rangers out of the playoffs when, in a world where things were still normal, they would have still had a reasonable opportunity to squeak in. One solution to that would be to expand the playoffs from the typical 16 teams to a larger format in order to incorporate the teams that were still in the playoff race when play suspended, but didn’t occupy a playoff spot. Exactly how much the playoffs would be expanded is a question that still needs to be answered.
If play does resume this season, another big factor will be rust. Players will be coming off a prolonged period of time where they haven’t been playing or practicing, so they won’t be in top form. Of course, everyone will be in the same boat there, but it might lead to unpredictable results with some players significantly underperforming. This will likely also set teams and players that were particularly hot back to one. One potentially prime example of that is the Vegas Golden Knights, who were clicking lately.
Depending on how much this pushes things back, this might also allow for players who were injured and not expected to return in time to make an impact to contribute. For example, Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel underwent shoulder surgery at the end of December and was expected to miss four-to-six months as a result. If the playoffs happen, but start late, then it increases the chances of him playing in them.
Related to the possibility of everything being pushed back, the NHL is reportedly asking teams to provide arena availability through the end of July, per Frank Seravalli. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to see postseason games in July, but it shows that the NHL is examining all possibilities.
Looking beyond this season, there’s also questions about the salary cap. Unless some measures are taken to intervene, it seems fair at this point to say that the salary cap will go down for the 2020-21 campaign in light of the decrease in revenues that this will cause. That will naturally impact different teams in different ways. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, would be going into the summer in a very difficult cap situation if there is no increase. If the cap decreases instead, then they might be forced to make a trade. There are other teams that might similarly be looking to dump salary in that scenario, which would help a team like the Detroit Red Wings, which is projected to be swimming in cap space. It’d be an opportunity for teams like the Red Wings to acquire talent or draft picks under favorable terms. Think back to last summer when Toronto gave Carolina a first round draft pick in order to absorb Patrick Marleau’s cap hit as an example of just how much a team with cap space can potentially get from a team desperate to move a contract.
Of course, in the short term, our minds will be elsewhere. All I can say is, stay safe everyone. Hopefully we will see a time in the not too distant future where the coronavirus is under control and normalcy can return to our lives.