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.

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