NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants a season. Fans of the Edmonton Oilers want a season. I want a season. Thanks, Captain Obvious. The trick is figuring out when that season starts and what it looks like, given everything is a moving target and a pain in the backside because of COVID-19. I’ve got some thoughts on that.
As of today. virtually everything has a question mark beside it. How long should the season be? When should it start? What format works? Does a Canadian division make sense? What we do know is Bettman has already said he doesn’t want to play deep into next summer in the hope the NHL can return to something approaching a normal timeline for the start of the 2021-22 season.
Bettman originally talked about the possibility of a Dec. 1 return to play. We know that’s not going to happen. Later, after Tampa Bay claimed the Stanley Cup in six games over the Dallas Stars here in Edmonton – before COVID numbers right across Canada and the U.S. began climbing to the point they’re at now — the potential start-up date was moved back to Jan. 1. When all is said and done, I don’t think that’s going to fly either.
The way I spitball it, and working within the parameters of not playing through the entire summer of 2021 while keeping the timeline for 2021-22 in mind, I’m thinking a 48-game season (in whatever alignment is decided upon) that begins the first week of February and runs until mid-May before playoffs begin might work. Emphasis on might.
THE WAY I SEE IT
I like the early February start date for a lot of reasons.
- Starting Jan. 1 creates a conflict with Christmas. Teams are going to need to set-up training camps and most, I’m guessing, will want to play some pre-season games. Do you start that process, take a break for Christmas and then get back at it? I don’t think so. Early February gives teams all of January to hold camps and train. It also avoids conflict with the World Junior Championship.
- Moving the date back gives Canada and the U.S. some time to get on top of those rising COVID numbers. We need that here and they damn sure need it down in the U.S. where Donald Trump is dragging ass in the transition to Joe Biden, who has committed to paying the kind of attention to the pandemic Trump never did. News this week from Pfizer that a vaccine that might be ready by January is no small matter either. No guarantee, but that would be a game-changer in time for a February start.
- Playing 48 games is a workable number in the span of February, March, April and part of May. As an example, in 2019, the Oilers played 14 games in February and another 14 in March. In 2018, they played 14 games in February and 16 in the month of March. Whatever alignment is decided on will play into things, but on the face of it, you wouldn’t be grinding the players into dust with a super-compressed schedule..
- Even with a full eight weeks for playoffs, getting the post-season started the last week of May would see the Cup hoisted before the end of July. With the Entry Draft and free agency to consider, it would still be a short off-season, but it would push things closer to the normal timeline Bettman is looking for – depending on the state of the pandemic.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Everybody wants hockey back, but I’d rather have it back under the best possible circumstances in the context of COVID than have it back sooner with the bigger picture up in the air. Like I said earlier, there are no guarantees we flatten the curve to a manageable level or get a vaccine to match the timeline I’m suggesting, but moving the start-up date to February gives us an extra month to see which way it goes.
As for details about format and what the NHL is going to look like when the puck drops again – alignment, bubbles, travel, scheduling – we’ll see based on what the bigger picture tells us. Simply put, I don’t see any downside to an early-February start. What say you?