As of March 12, 2020 the NHL is on a suspension of play due to the threat of the Coronavirus. The virus, also known as COVID-19, has made rounds from its origin in Wuhan, China throughout the world, and it is now beginning to leave its number on the US. Over 1000 cases have been confirmed on American soil, including a nation-leading 328 in New York state. There are most likely many more. As a result of the impending threat created, many questions regarding the size of crowds at sporting events began to emerge.
Initially, plans were in place to hold previously scheduled games with no fans in attendance. The thought of having an empty stadium for NHL games was thrown around in cities such as Columbus, San Jose and Los Angeles. The Golden State Warriors were the first professional team to implement the policy with an alleged game taking place on March 12 with no fans vs. the Brooklyn Nets. Columbus and San Jose had also announced that they would be following similar policies for all home games to follow. Even the NCAA had announced that all games for March Madness would take place in front of only families and employees, no other outside fans.
However, all those plans changed very suddenly on March 11. Just before game time in a matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz, the players were pulled from the court. The game would later be postponed and the arena was emptied. It would later be revealed that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had come down with the Coronavirus, and it would be announced the following morning that fellow star Donovan Mitchell would come down with the virus as well.
The effects of the diagnosis could be far reaching, as the Jazz had played the Knicks, Celtics, Raptors, Pistons, and Cavaliers in the 2 weeks before, and most of those teams share arenas and locker rooms with NHL franchises. As a result, the NBA, not resting on its laurels, decided to suspend play until further notice. The next day, many other leagues followed in their footsteps, as the NHL, MLB, and MLS all suspended operations indefinitely. While it is discouraging to see, it is in the best interest of all involved. NHL player, coach, and fan safety and health all have to come first.
However, with the suspension underway, it will raise discussion as to how the league will come back. The NHL is around three quarters done with its season, and the postseason is slated to begin April 8. With training camps beginning in September, the league will want to get back in action as soon as possible, but there may be modifications to help get through the season and into the playoffs faster. While we won’t know what will happen until the NHL deems it safe to play, here are three possible ways the NHL will start action.
1. No Changes: 82 Game Slate + Full Postseason
The first method is to change nothing regarding the number of games remaining. The NHL could reschedule its remaining matchups and set the postseason back to a later date. However, it would be difficult to reorganize play outside the conferences, especially for a team like the Islanders who still have to complete a Western Canada swing. Also, the NHL wants its teams to request arena coverage until August, so the chance of a complete season is more than a possibility. While it may bring about fatigue in the following year if the playoffs were to indeed run till early to mid August, if the NHL wants to play fair game in order to settle postseason spots, this is the way to do it.
2. Straight to Playoffs: No More Regular Season Games
This method is the most controversial of the bunch. If the hiatus lasts long enough and the NHL wants to get back on the ice to declare a champion, this may be the way out. The way the method would work is that the teams in each conference with the eight highest point percentages would make the playoffs. However, by this logic the Blue Jackets, who currently hold the second Wild Card in the East, would not make it and the Islanders, who are currently outside the picture, would get in. Also, the Vancouver Canucks, who currently sit outside the Wild Card in the West, would make it over the number 1 WC Jets. As a result, the teams that currently sit on the outside with higher point percentages would make it in over higher overall point totals, and that would be very discouraging to the teams that would miss under the suspension rules.
3. Inter-Conference Games Only
Saying the NHL wants to conclude the season as soon as possible, the best way would be to decrease the number of games to include only teams within their respective conferences. For reference, the Islanders only have 4 games left vs. the West, including Minnesota, Edmonton, and Calgary twice, trimming the number down to 78. However, the obvious flaw is that teams will have varying numbers of games vs. the opposite conference. For example, the Anaheim Ducks only have 1 game left vs. the East against Boston, and the Dallas Stars have 3. As a result, this method would tie back to the second in which point percentage would be the key factor of postseason seeding.
Now, of course, none of this is set in stone yet. The hiatus has only just begun and the number of Coronavirus cases is expected to rise with time. However, there will still be plenty of speculation in hockey circles of when and how the NHL will begin play again. While the NHL hopes to play 82 games down the stretch, hopes for a schedule have begun to emerge. Beginning in at least a week, training facilities for every NHL team are allowed to re-open, and players can run mini-camps to get back into game speed before the NHL eventually re-opens.
However, based on recent developments, it may be a while. A recent statement by the CDC suggests that all public gatherings of at least 50 people over the next eight weeks be postponed or cancelled. That puts the NHL on target for at least a mid-May return to action, and if the NHL wants to complete the season it would put around late July or early August as the date the cup is awarded.
As a result, considering the CDC warning of postponing action, it would have to leave the league at a very short offseason for its players. Furthermore, the NHL would have to reschedule the NHL Draft, Draft Lottery, and crucial dates such as free agency and arbitration dates. This puts Gary Bettman and company in a very tight situation regarding how to finish the season. With regards to player safety, the possible cancellation of the entire NHL season and no Stanley Cup winner is definitely on the table.
However, no matter what happens with the remaining number of games, playoff seeding, or the possibility of playing games at all, this break will be the best move possible as the NHL is serious about keeping its players and staff healthy.