NHL Return to play and some of the latest ideas

There’s going to be in an NHL season in some way, shape, and form. But what’s the latest and how might things look when we get there?

I know when we talk about the NHL’s return to play and some of the ideas listed as to just how the league plans to facilitate those plans, we do so knowing the full reality of the world right now, how important COVID-19 is, and not losing sight in the safety of players, coaches and everyone as a whole in the grand scheme.

With cases ever-climbing as we approach one full year of this awful pandemic, we’ve seen the way in which sports leagues have pushed forward amid the ever-persistent concerns of the virus. Go back to last March and we had no idea what could be in store several weeks later, let alone several months.

Particularly for the case of the NHL, and NBA for that matter, the playoff bubbles were a complete success. Not one positive case and both the Lightning and Lakers took the crown in there respective leagues. But we know the idea of a bubble, and specifically hosting various teams in one of a few NHL arenas across North America is less than ideal. There’s likely to be no fans in attendance this upcoming season, whenever we can drop the puck. Or at the very least, it would likely have to be similar to MLB’s NLCS and World Series, limited NFL and college football stadiums, in which a few thousand fans, all socially distanced, were permitted to attend games.

The NHL pulling off its bubble last August with 100% success was encouraging amid these challenging times in which there’s much more at stake, from a human perspective, but also when you think about players with underlying conditions, and older coaches and management.

The NHL has been working on the details and parameters for the upcoming season. There’s been some ideas (PD and I talked about this on a recent podcast episode) as to how that will play out, such as a more confined type of bubble in which only a few hub cities would host games in what you would expect to be a condensed schedule (The Athletic’s Michael Russo talked about the league’s potential return to play options) possibly starting New Years Day at the earliest?

The idea has been floated in which there could be temporary divisional realignment — this seems most likely and more on this later — as the league looks to safely navigate some kind of schedule. From an on-ice perspective, I think that’s pretty intriguing and potentially eludes Columbus of some of the usual Metropolitan Division rivals we’ve become acquainted with in recent years.

And maybe things could look more closely to the Central Division of old in which Columbus might play teams like the rebuilding Blackhawks and Red Wings. Wouldn’t that be a nice 20 year Blue Jackets anniversary surprise, getting to play a team in Detroit a little more regularly. Although I think they’re poised to be a little better and Steve Yzerman is already putting his plans into action. Nevertheless, it really takes you back to the early days of such dominance by the team up north and as recent years have indicated, the tables have turned.

There’s also the potential for Columbus to host as a hub city, which goes back to last summer when the league held the city among its contending hosts for games within the confinement of a bubble for playoff play. And if that’s the case, how does that affect the jobs of workers like our Rachel Bules who works photography for the NHL? The league will have to figure out who’s considered absolutely most essential.

And could the league operate more like the NFL with each city hosting games and traveling like normal, while circumventing the schedule and navigating the virus’s impact? I’m not so sure since the NHL has almost daily travel while NFL teams play weekly.

Scott Burnside had the latest for The Athletic including CBA-related questions, how many games we would likely have, and that the league should restart in January unless something related to the virus happens. The article also mentioned that teams could likely begin play at their own arenas, but teams would be grouped into divisions that are more geographically-aligned to help reduce travel, such as an all-Canada division.

From Burnside’s article:

If COVID-19 issues force the NHL into a hub situation — at least temporarily — it’s expected there would be one hub per division. Teams would travel to the hub city for a couple of weeks and play a series of games before returning home, while other teams would move in and so on. If you do that, as one longtime NHL executive noted, it’s not really a bubble though, which is why he expects teams to play in their own cities.

Burnside also talked about how the playoffs could look. According to Burnside, Gary Bettman prefers not to have an expanded playoff field like last August. But could things feature an all-division playoff grouping? There could even be a 2-2-1-1-1 format temporarily replacing the 2-3-2 format in order to avoid extra travel within playoff series.

Could the regular season even keep its schedule limited to within the division, similar to MLB in order to reduce travel? Everything also plays into next summer’s Olympics and the scheduling commitments between the league and its NBC properties.

While it might not end up being a bubble per say, and depending on where the country and world as a whole is come playoff time, we know the bubble can work. But it’s awfully tough trying to do play an entire season in one, asking players and teams to potentially not see their families for several months at a time. That of course is just one of the unfortunate ramifications associated with the bubble, but it doesn’t appear the league is going that route.

What do you think? What’s some of the ideas you think might, could, or should happen? Vote in our poll and leave your feedback in the comments.

NHL’s 2020-21 season

Bubble - Teams confined to hotel3
A couple of hub cities hosts games across North America35
Teams play in home cities42
No season - Figure out that fallout later12

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