The NHL decided to accept the current terms of the CBA on Monday and thus end talks with the NHLPA on financial issues. This clears the way for a 2020-21 season, but there remains plenty of work to do and details to finalize before the puck drops.
Here's what's still on the NHL's to-do list and where things stand:
The season is expected to begin on Jan. 13 with each team playing a 56-game schedule. While we all expected to see a very condensed schedule, Pierre LeBrun reports that may not actually be the case.
With the NFL and college football seeing multiple postponements and cancellations every week, the NHL knows it has to build room into the schedule so it is expected the regular season schedule will include open dates in case a coronavirus breakout results in games having to be pushed back.
It has long been believed that the league would have to realign its divisions and place all Canadian teams in one division since Canada has closed its borders to all unessential travel. Gary Bettman noted this on Tuesday in an interview with The Maccabi USA Sports Show.
"We have travel issues because of the restrictions at the border between Canada and the U.S.," Bettman said. "You can't go back and forth, so we're actually going to have to realign. If everything stays the way it is, we're probably going to have to have a Canadian division and realign in the U.S., and we're trying to focus on dealing with all of those challenges."
There are seven Canadian teams so putting them in one division is simple. The more difficult part is what the resulting American divisions will look like. This still needs to be finalized, but one report has the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins playing in different divisions next season.
Where games will be played
Both the NHL and NHLPA really, really want to avoid having a bubble.
Greg Wyshynski of ESPN wrote Tuesday that, "The primary objective remains to have all 31 teams playing in their home arenas, with baseball-style 'homestands' of three games between teams. That's the preference of the majority of owners. That's the preference of the players. That's the plan that has gotten the most attention in NHL circles."
This does not mean those games would be played in front of fans. In fact, the Capitals reportedly informed season ticket holders that there will be no fans in arenas to start the season.
Hub cities are also still under consideration.
Health and safety protocols
It's pretty crazy that the financial obstacles were the biggest impediment to the season and now figuring out how to play in the midst of a pandemic is considered the easy part, but that's where we are.
The NHL and NHLPA are basically starting from scratch on this. What happened in the summer doesn't apply at all because of the push to play games at home arenas rather than in a bubble. All those protocols in the summer therefore will have to be adjusted accordingly.
The biggest question for me is will vaccines be mandatory for players and team personnel once they become available?
The NHL was very aware of its image early on in the pandemic when it came to testing and did not want to appear to be taking tests away from first-responders or the sick. Wil they be so conscientious with the vaccine?
Also, what about opt-outs? We did not see many opt-outs in the summer, but we did see some. This is a different situation given that players would be walking away from an entire season, but since there won't be a bubble, you have to wonder if players will consider sitting out 2021. At the very least, however, I would expect the option to be there for players to take if they want. Considering the league just tried to get players to defer more of their salaries for the season just months after negotiating a CBA, I am guessing the owners would be open to opt-outs since it would mean potentially a handful of salaries they won't have to pay this season.
I don't know if you know this, but there's a pandemic going on and that may result in several players suddenly becoming unavailable for a team on any given night for an extended period of time. Because of COVID, however, call-ups are not going to be as simple as general manager Brian MacLellan getting on the phone, calling up Hershey in the AHL and telling a player to pack his bags and drive to Washington. Rosters are going to have to be different this year to reflect the challenges each team is facing, but the NHL is also not about to raise the salary cap and allow teams to sign more players given the financial realities of 2020.
The most likely solution is what's being called a "taxi squad" which will be similar to the concept of black aces in the playoffs. These would be practice players who remain with the NHL team but are not paid NHL salaries, do not count against the salary cap and who would not be available to put into the lineup unless "recalled."
Of course, this would put teams in a bind to have to decide which players they are OK having just as practice players without getting much game experience for the season. It's not something teams generally want their top prospects to do.
This is also something the AHL needs to know given its target to start the season is Feb. 5 and it needs to know if each team is going to be missing a handful of players from each roster.
LeBrun reports that the NHL has made a proposal of the framework for roster structures for the upcoming season, but the specifics of that proposal are not yet known.
One item that's not on the proposal and that is not seen as an option for clearing cap space and roster room is compliance buyouts.
According to Frank Seravalli, compliance buyouts were discussed and the NHLPA was open to them but wanted the buyouts to count towards the owners' share of hockey-related revenue, meaning basically they did not want the money from the buyout to be labeled as player salary and count towards the players' 50-percent share. The league would not agree to that and so we are unlikely to see compliance buyouts at all through the current CBA.