NHL Could See Later Start to 2020-21 Season

According to yesterday’s New York Post in an article written by Larry Brooks (accessed via their website), the National Hockey League may be seeing a later than expected start for the 2020-21 regular season.

The media outlet is reporting that “there has been a lull in the talking since the NHL hit the NHLPA with its request last week for additional salary deferrals and an increase in the escrow cap that would amount to approximately $300 million flowing to ownership for 2020-21.”

Back in July, the two sides signed a new collective bargaining agreement. This allowed the league to go through with their Return to Play initiative that resulted in the Stanley Cup Playoffs being played to their completion. It also deferred players pay “10 percent … with escrow capped at 20 percent. Players would have been guaranteed 72 percent of their face-value pay for the coming season.”

Now, the league is “citing liquidity issues” to get the “players to defer 26 percent of their pay while increasing the escrow cap to 25 percent. That amounts to a guarantee of 55.5 percent for 2021-21. The league is also asking players to increase the escrow cap for the fourth, fifth and sixth years” of the six-year CBA.

The Post’s Brookscited “several well-placed sources” saying that there was “continuing adamant, widespread opposition within the union to this request to renegotiate the terms of agreement structured by the NHLPA to protect players under contract as much as immediately possible while passing the cost of a flat cap and rolling escrow shortfalls onto later generations.”

Brooks said that the NHLPA is “entitled to no more than 50 percent of hockey-related revenue over the life of the agreement.” With “the adoption of annual escrow caps coupled with unlinking the cap from actual hockey-related revenue” there is an end to “the assurance of a year-by-year 50-50 split.”

Brooks suggested that since “the original 10 percent deferral was scheduled to be repaid without interest in three equal, annual installments beginning on Oct. 15, 2022,” then “perhaps the union would be more amenable to at least talking about adjusting the agreement if the league agrees to repay all deferred money with interest.”

The NHL was shooting for January 1, 2021 as the start of a 60-game season that would run through April. Now that that seems to be interrupted by the labor issues, Brooks mentioned that a 48-game schedule starting during the third week of January “appears the more likely objective.”

Of course, there is precedent for a 48-game season. Brooks pointed out that the 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons were shortened to such with 1994-95 starting on January 20, 1995 while the 2012-13 season began on January 19, 2013.

As if that was not enough, there is also the continuing concerns brought on by COVID-19.

The NHL and NHLPA “must agree on health and safety protocols outside of a bubble. With an expectation of exposure, positive tests, infection and cases, the league and union must create contingencies within the schedule for postponements; for potentially ranking teams by percentages rather than points if teams do not play the same number of games; for roster expansion to accommodate positive (or inconclusive) tests, etc.”

Sports fans have seen similar problems in Major League Baseball and the National Football League with schedules interrupted due to COVID outbreaks among team players and personnel.

To alleviate this, Brooks mentions that the NHL “might want to consider eliminating overtime and going straight from regulation to the shootout in the event of 60-minute tie scores in order to limit the amount of time teams spend on the ice while competing in a condensed schedule.”

Brooks says that “the NHL remains focused on playing in home arenas, with or without fans as determined by local health agencies and governing bodies. That has not changed with news that a handful of players on the Blue Jackets and Golden Knights have tested positive for COVID-19 while skating informally.”

The league, with seven teams in Canada, also has to tackle the problem that teams cannot just cross the border, play a game, and then return to the United States. Canada has strict quarantining protocols in place. Entering Canada, you must self-quarantine for two weeks. With this, the league has bandied around the idea of a “Canadian Division” that would see the seven Canadian teams play each other while the American teams are divided up into regional divisions as well. (The Devils would likely be in a division with other northeastern teams, such as the usual Rangers, Islanders and Flyers; but also teams like the Sabres and Bruins, whom they have never shared a division with.)

Whatever happens, we will find out soon hopefully and get the 2020-21 season off and running.

Binghamton Names Eklund Goaltending Coach; NHL Eyes New Season Plans

Some news to get to today and we will begin with the Devils’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Binghamton Devils, who named Brian Eklund their new goaltending coach. Tom Fitzgerald, Devils Executive Vice President and General Manager made the announcement earlier today.

Eklund previously served as goalie coach for Boston University for the last five seasons. Before coaching with the Terriers, he “was a volunteer assistant coach with Harvard University. The press release put out by the Devils notes that “in his time with the Crimson, Eklund’s goaltenders set records in wins, saves and starts, and also won the 2015 ECAC tournament.”

Eklund, a former collegiate goalie at Brown University from 1998 to 2002, played “in one regular season NHL contest (Nov. 8, 2005) over his six-year professional career.” In a neat twist, he was the third goalie for the Lightning in the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs and, as such, is the owner of a Stanley Cup championship ring.

He was picked 226th overall in the seventh round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by Tampa Bay and played three seasons in the AHL, two for the Springfield Falcons and one for the Providence Thunderbirds. He played a total of 73 games in the AHL, finishing with a 2.95 goals against average and an .874 save percentage according to the press release.

The press release notes that he spent three professional seasons in the ECHL with the Pensacola Ice Pilots and the Johnstown Chiefs. In the ECHL, he played 83 seasons and posted a 3.15 GAA and a .916 save percentage. The PR staff also said that, in the 2003-04 season, he set league records “for most minutes played in one season (3,724), saves in one season (2,194) an most saves in a playoff game (83; 2-1 2OT loss).”

The 40-year-old native of Braintree, Massachusetts also owns a goalie school in the state called Massachusetts Crease “designed to develop aspiring goalies.”

In other, more broad NHL news, Nicholas J. Cotsonika had an article on the NHL website today that outlined Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to get back on the ice for the 2020-21 season.

The coronavirus pandemic has altered a lot of our lives and the NHL will be no different. The league, according to remarks by Bettman on Tuesday, said that “he would never ask players to return to a bubble fort an entire season.” That is how the 2019-20 season and 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs ended up, from July 25 to September 28 in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

Bettman told Cotsonika that the league would try to get teams to be able to play “in their own arenas (with or without fans depending on the local situation), in hubs or in a hybrid system.”

Cotsonika said that “any plan would be a collaborative effort between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, as was the 2020 Return to Play Plan. Though both sides are in constant and regular communication, there haven’t been any regular meetings.”

The plan, as it stands now would see teams, if in a bubble, “to rotate in and out.” The Commissioner “said in a virtual panel discussion during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit” he was on with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver: “You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need. It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we’re talking about.”

Bettman also said that while the league has tried to target January 1 as a start date, “how the season starts is not necessarily how it will finish, depending on how the situation evolves.”

There is one major factor in all of this: the United States-Canada border. There is “closure to nonessential travel” between the two countries. Bettman joked that they are not “going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play.” In addition, he noted that certain states have quarantining for travelers from other states within the US.

Bettman said that they need to be “flexible” and that, “as it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense.”

He continued by saying that “it may be that we’re better off, particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues.”

On the topic of fans, Cotsonika noted that, which the NHL returned in July, “it had to transform itself into a studio sport, tailoring the game presentation to a TV audience.”

Bettman, on this topic, said that “what we were doing was trying to create an energy and excitement and coverage of our game that would be compelling in the absence of fans.”

As TV ratings were down for the NHL (as, Cotsonika says, they were for all sports), Bettman made two excuses points: “One, fans in the stands give games energy that comes through on television, and some of that was missed.” (The Florida Panthers would like to have a word….)

And, “two, research showed that while avid fans would watch the NHL at any time, casual fans were less inclined to watch in the summer.” (Ahh, yes, the mythical “casual fans” who are either fans of all teams or none.)

So, the Commissioner thinks, “that’s where … a lot of the falloff came. And while we’re in the middle of working on our return to play as well, which I hope to have put to bed soon, our goal is to get back to normal schedule starting [next] fall and being done before July on a longer-term basis. That is the goal.”

Manfred applauded how the NHL in how they handled the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that MLB could learn how to handle things a little bit better and that “maybe it’s not about playing through it, maybe what you’ve really got to worry about is making sure it doesn’t spread.”

In speaking to Bettman, Manfred realized that they were going to have “shutdowns” and “accepted the fact that we were going to have to reschedule to get through.” He credited Bettman with helping him see a different approach.

Whatever they decide, and regional divisions with realignment and a reduced schedule seems to be the way they are leaning, it will just be good to get some hockey on our television screens again soon.