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The NHL won’t cancel the 2020 season, but they should

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The league continues to make contingency plans to salvage the 2020 season. But what are they risking by pushing it?

Feb 12, 2020; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Gary Bettman commissioner of the National Hockey League with a smile during the Sedin's retirement ceremony prior to a game between the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks. Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

We’re coming upon the one-month mark since the NHL, alongside other professional sports leagues, hit the pause button on its seasons after it became clear that the leagues themselves could easily be conduits of infection and could not run safely while coronavirus cases are still on the rise. From the beginning, it seemed as though the NHL was dragging its feet when it came to committing to any kind of decisions about how to proceed, seemingly hopeful that things will suddenly and rapidly change for the better. That approach that was hardly realistic to start with, but has increasingly felt like foolish wishful thinking as each day passes.

Meanwhile, the ECHL — the third-tier professional men’s hockey league in North America — cancelled their season weeks ago, on March 14, recognizing that the small league simply lacked the resources to make returning to play a viable option. Many ECHL players on standard player contracts team will work a different job in the off-season and are only provided housing in the cities they play during the season. The circumstances were different, but the actions taken were fairly quick and decisive, especially compared to other leagues.

The AHL, having more financial and logistical support from the NHL, hasn’t ruled out returning, but Chris Johnston of Sportsnet reported that the AHL’s return likely will not mirror what happens in the NHL, again due to a lack of financial resources. The league has advised its clubs that play will not return before May and to prepare for an indefinite suspension.

The NBA — the league that posed a massive cross-contamination risk for the NHL (and some AHL teams) due to shared arenas and locker rooms — has been candid about how uncertain the future is and by doing so, has somehow given a clearer picture of how the NBA as a whole is making decisions. On an NBA Twitter broadcast, commissioner Adam Silver offered the following insight (transcription via Yahoo! Sports):

“In a perfect world, yes we would try to finish the regular season in some form and then move on to the playoffs ... but what I’ve learned over the last few weeks is that we just have too little information to make those sorts of projections,” Silver said as a sobering reminder. “I will say though that as I look out into the summer, there does come a point where we would start impacting next season. Now, even there, I think a few weeks ago nobody thought we were going to be talking about a potential impact on next season independent of what we might choose to do to finish our regular season and playoffs.”

In just that statement, Silver made it clear that preserving the 2020-21 season will likely take precedent over salvaging the 2019-20 season. He acknowledged how fast information is changing — and importantly, how it’s been changing for the worse, quickly. From the jump, Silver emphasized that managing to finish both the regular season and playoffs is so much a best-case scenario that it’s practically fantasy.

Some of these sentiments have been echoed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman or deputy commissioner Bill Daly, namely that not disrupting the 2020-21 season is the top priority when it comes to their decision-making. That’s certainly a positive.

Teams typically start training camps in late September and kick off the preseason at the beginning of October. Assuming the NHLPA would fight for some sort of break prior to the start of the season, let’s say those months are off the table. Best case scenario, playoffs end just before or during the first week of September, playoff team members will have some kind of shortened camp, or get to ease into the preseason as teams see fit.

As the playoffs are currently formatted, four rounds of a best-of-seven series means the league has to plan for a maximum of seven games in each round, typically putting each on a 14-day schedule for each round.

You see where I’m going with this.

Four rounds at 14 days each is planning at approximately eight weeks, give or take a week or so, depending on scheduling. Should the NHL push to maintain this playoff structure, playoffs would need to start at the beginning of July, perhaps the second week at the latest. This scenario might not be off the table just yet, however.

Why not? The precedent I would use is the World Cup of Hockey, hosted in September of 2016. The 2015-16 season and postseason ran as normal, ending on June 12, 2016 with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ victory over the San Jose Sharks. The World Cup of Hockey began on September 8, 2016 with three pre-tournament games. Players who played in both the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey had just an 88-day off-season (not including training) that year and many who played on Team Canada and Team Europe in the final were excused from their NHL team’s training camp due to tournament obligations.

It’s clear that September 2020 is a bit fluid, though the key difference between playing an international tournament in September as opposed to a league tournament is pretty significant. International teams are composed of the world’s all-star talent. NHL teams, however, are constructed very differently. It wouldn’t just be the best of the best, athletes who are already a step above their peers suffering from a shortened off-season, but whole NHL teams.

To continue to comparison, the Sharks had a brutal first-round exit the season after they sent seven players to the World Cup of Hockey. Now, for fairness’ sake, the Pittsburgh Penguins sent six players and went on to win the Stanley Cup again in 2016-17. In fact, the data shows that the Penguins were spending a far larger percentage of their cap on injured players that season than the Sharks did.

The top image shows cap spent on injured players per game, while the bottom image shows the Sharks’ single-game Corsi For Percentage against their Five-Game Rolling Average CF%.
NHL Injury Viz
The top image shows cap spent on injured players per game, while the bottom image shows the Penguins’ single-game Corsi For Percentage against their Five-Game Rolling Average CF%.
NHL Injury Viz

Unfortunately, these charts get formatted small and lose their interactivity by being uploaded, so I do encourage you to check out NHL Injury Viz and take a look at the teams yourself. One feature of the top graph will tell you which players were gone to what injury, with defenders designated in red, forwards in blue and goaltenders in green. What you’ll see is that while San Jose had fewer overall injuries, several of the injuries in Pittsburgh were long-term, meaning the team was able to make long-term adjustments, whereas the Sharks’ rotating cast of injuries left the line up in constant flux.

The Penguins also lost several players who weren’t exactly lighting up the roster. Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey were both looking past their expiration date when they found themselves on the Penguins’ LTIR. This was also the season that Pascal Dupuis' continued health issues led to his retirement, inflating their numbers, as well.

Here are the charts narrowed down by players who were in the World Cup of Hockey:

Sharks injuries to World Cup of Hockey players, 2016-17
NHL Injury Viz
Penguins injuries to World Cup of Hockey players, 2016-17
NHL Injury Viz

Ultimately, the Sharks were still fairly healthy, but it was just injuries against key players at the right time that led to their downfall, while the Penguins were able to sustain some long-term solutions to their injuries.

There obviously are many other factors to account for, but what these represent to me is what is at risk when discussing a shorter off-season. The data shows too many players who played in the World Cup of Hockey were injured during the following season, especially to those players who played in the final. The numbers might not tell the whole story, but anecdotally, players and analysts discussed the shortened off-season often, enough that I knew the 88 day off-season figure off-hand even now in 2020. It was that big of a talking point.

There were also injuries during the tournament, with players like Tyler Seguin and Aaron Ekblad finding themselves suddenly rehabbing an injury before the 2016-17 regular season. Shortening the off-season just puts players’ bodies more at risk.

Even if the NHL cut the playoff format down to a best-of-five or best-of-three tournament, that’s still looking at a month at minimum, and given that COVID-19 is unlikely to slow down anytime soon, that month will likely be August. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said as much.

“I think as time has gone on, we’ve recognized we might have a bigger window than we had originally thought with respect to the summer months and when we have to finish things to be ready for a full regular season next year,” he explained.

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported soon after that President Trump told professional sports commissioners that August and September is a target goal for re-opening arenas to the public, though Kaplan noted that there’s every likelihood that medical experts, knowing more about the situation overall, might disagree with how safe that will actually be (not to mention the lingering hesitancy people will feel, even after isolation ends).

On Saturday, Gary Bettman participated in a call with U.S. President Donald Trump and other professional sports commissioners. Trump reportedly told the commissioners that he hopes to have fans back in stadiums and arenas by August and September. That doesn’t really affect anything with the NHL’s plan, especially because it’s unclear if medical experts and local authorities view that as a realistic time frame.

The players have also made it clear that they do not want to return from this break without being able to get their sea legs back. If playoffs are to even resemble something fair to all parties involved, there would need to be dozens of games played, just to make sure everyone played the same number of regular season games. When the season paused, the Carolina Hurricanes played the fewest games this season (68), with the rest of the league having played up to 71. There were still 189 total games left on the schedule for the season. That takes time to coordinate, especially when usable arena space likely will be limited as the NBA tries to salvage its season, too.

That’s time that the NHL is quickly running out of.

Adding to the time crunch is the fact this isn’t any kind of productive break for players. They can’t fully commit to their months-long off-season routines because the season can still come back, but they also can’t get any ice time anywhere because Stay in Place orders have closed down rinks. The players would need more regular-season games and another camp ahead of them to make sure they ease back into the season as safely as possible.

Again, this is all still the best-case scenario. Some of the worst ideas? Playing games in a neutral site like North Dakota, without crowds. Major League Baseball has a similar contingency plan involving teams playing in Arizona. For the NBA, it’s Vegas.

What none of these plans consider is the scope of the undertaking in the world as it is. Travel is minimal, and carries a massive risk to spread the infection to new areas. The NHL is an international league and many players returned to their home countries for fear of being stranded in North America while their families were abroad, everyone isolating indefinitely. How can the league guarantee it won’t be a health risk to the players or to the staff, especially since the virus spreads through respiratory droplets and athletes spit and breathe heavily and invade each other’s personal space?

I once saw an ECHL player take his mouthguard out with his sweaty hand and stick it between his helmet and his visor. He then touched a bunch of stuff with that sweaty bare hand and shoved that mouthguard right back in. Sports are disgusting. No one ever knows which water bottle belongs to who, and mumps have gone around the league twice in just the last six years.

The NHL simply cannot do the level of work it would require to promise players and staff their own safety. And even then, coronavirus is still pretty good at infecting people. That’s generally how a pandemic happens.

Gary Bettman’s offer is basically the pull-out method. I’m sorry, but this is another one of those cases where even though it’s not nearly as fun, abstinence is still the only 100 percent guarantee and no condom in the world is good enough to ... you know, I think I’m losing the metaphor here, but you get the point. We haven’t been aggressive enough in following procedures to flatten the curve to this point, and hospitals are lacking proper equipment for treatment and limiting the spread.

Recognizing that nothing will be done about this on a federal level, states, counties and cities have taken their own measures to be more aggressive, which may be what ultimately renders a lot of this moot. Bettman and other league commissioners will have to deal with state and local governments stepping in and restricting how the league will be able to operate within their local arenas. This was already thought to be a potential issue when the city of Toronto banned all public gatherings through June 30, though city officials later clarified that the order did not cover sporting events. However, the city of Calgary issued a similar order, this time explicitly including both the NHL and Canadian Football League in the order.

And don’t forget that the NHL did not plan for preventative action. The NBA discussed playing in empty arenas prior to city public gathering bans, but those weren’t as immediate fears for the NHL, though it did join with the other leagues in banning press from locker rooms.

One thing working for the NHL is the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, leaving broadcast slots on NBC during July and August, the soonest the NHL would likely be able to resume any sort of schedule. That seems to be what Bettman and Daly think is extra time to utilize, having asked teams for arena availability through August.

But it seems like the window for this plan has to be closing fast. If we’re already looking to July as the first possible window nearly three months out, and like Adam Silver said, the effects of the spread of coronavirus are compounding much more quickly than we anticipated, it won’t be long before July is off the table, too. If just August, or perhaps six weeks between the end of July and beginning of September, becomes what the league is working with when it comes to scheduling:

  1. The players’ long-term safety is at risk, as experienced by players whose off-season was shortened by the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, and —
  2. Any tournament that can fit in such a tight schedule will not be meaningful enough to award the Stanley Cup based on prior postseasons.

I mean, seriously? A six-week schedule at best, fitting in a short camp and shortening the rounds to hold playoffs in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t going to be any kind of representation of what any team did or didn’t accomplish this season. Something Bettman stressed on yesterday’s Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico is that however the season ends, it must be fair and balanced, which may explain why the NHL is so desperate to cling onto the idea that the best thing is to give the season a traditional ending.

“Everything we do needs to be fair,” Bettman said on the NBC talkshow. “The best thing and the easiest thing would be if at some point if we could complete the regular season and then go into the playoffs as we normally do. We understand that that may not be possible and that’s why we are considering every conceivable alternative to deal with whatever the eventuality is.”

Admitting that the ending might not actually be all that fair kind of sucks. On the other side of that, though, is the logistical reality that cancelling the season doesn’t offer any better solutions for the real reason we love sports. We want that satisfying narrative, the season wrapped up in a bow that says See? It was Important that You Cared.

Sorry, folks. That’s just not going to be 2020.

The combine is already going to be cancelled. The draft will likely be streamlined or done virtually, following the NFL’s decision to move the draft online.

The truth is that when the season is inevitably cancelled, the hard questions are going to be about interpreting conditional picks, determining draft order and examining which contract-pending NCAA free agents are going to sign. That’s not any easier than trying to coordinate something meaningful out of a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy.

But it doesn’t put innocent people at risk. It doesn’t treat the players in this league like their bodies are disposable and worth less than the glory of a tournament that hardly looks like the sport we love.

Why even chance it? Make the decision now, because what Silver, Bettman and Daly all know to be true is that there’s an actual chance to not disrupt the 2020-21 season and that will ultimately be what allows all of the leagues to bounce back in the long-term. The sooner they can move on from fixing 2019-20, the sooner they can make plans to address the hard questions for the future. The next season will still come.

Coming back any sooner puts that all at risk.