The NHL season has been paused for two weeks and, with no real timetable for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knows when the season could resume. Whenever it does, there is no question that the season format will have to be tweaked in some way to account for the special circumstances. Because of that, just what the season should look like when play resumes has become a major topic of discussion in hockey circles.
Alex Ovechkin said on Thursday that he would like to see the league jump straight into the playoffs. On Monday, Caps general manager Brian MacLellan weighed in.
"Fair to me would be all teams play the same number of games, both home and away," he said on a conference call, "So depending on the time you have when we come back or if we come back, you could set the schedule at 72, 74 games, close to possible of home and away if you could even those out and then kind of go from there after that."
For MacLellan, the biggest issues are the quality of play in the playoffs and the readiness of the players for that high-intensity hockey.
“I think ideally if time permitted, you would like a few games, but I would also be OK with jumping in the playoffs. I think for the benefit of the quality of play and the players’ health, ideally you’re playing a few games before you enter the playoffs.”
"It's going to be a challenge," he added. "We're going to end up being at least two months off, and to come in at various levels of conditioning -- some of it out of the players' hands -- it's going to be a hard thing to accomplish, to get players into game shape and send them into a playoff-type situation almost immediately."
One issue is that even when the coronavirus is under control, that doesn't mean the threat is totally gone. Unless there is a vaccine, should the NHL return this season certain precautions will have to be taken when the players return to begin practicing.
MacLellan said the team is discussing the possibility of small group skates and what precautions the team can take at its practice facility, MedStar Capitals Iceplex, to help prevent any of the players from contracting the virus.
"We've talked about that scenario taking place where we get on the other side of the virus curve and there's beginnings of you can have small groups," MacLellan said. "Could we structure something at [Medstar Capitals Iceplex] where we're bringing in three, four guys at a time? How do we handle sanitizing the training room, the equipment room? We've gone through these scenarios to be prepared if that becomes the case. If they say in June, OK you can start doing this, as an organization we want to be prepared for it. So that is a possibility and we're discussing it internally."
These are issues that must be discussed because the NHL is adamant that the Stanley Cup be awarded this year and that means probably playing hockey deep into the summer.
"I think depending on how the country, the world handles the virus, I think there is a possibility of playing end of June, July, August," MacLellan said. "I think the league is prepared, they've asked for building dates in August so I'm assuming it's a serious consideration on their part."
Just what that hockey will look like, however, is anyone's guess. There are still too many questions and too many unknowns about the league's possible return for there to be any definitive playoff format for the 2019-20 season. Until there is some clarity on when play may resume and how much time there will be for the remainder of the current season, then everyone remains in the dark.
"There's no set answer to it because I don't know how much time we're going to have," MacLellan said. "If we have eight weeks, do we have ten weeks, do we have more than 10 weeks? Depending on that time frame and if that's even legitimate at the time, you would have to set your schedule there. So could you shorten a series? Could you shorten the end of the schedule? I think all those options are on the table and I think it's just how the virus plays out and how we handle it and how much time we would have to get a season in if we could get a season in at the end."
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