NHL News

The NHL’s coronavirus pause: Possible playoff formats, players’ workout plans, free agency and more

It has now been 18 days since the NHL decided to hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and players, coaches, team personnel and fans throughout the hockey world have been self-isolating and social distancing — well, throughout most of the hockey world, but more on that in a bit.

While there is no official timeline for when the NHL will resume play — or a decision on whether the rest of the regular-season games will be played or we’ll skip right to the Stanley Cup Playoffs — there have been significant developments during the past seven days.

Let’s get you caught up on all of the latest intel on a variety of angles:

Has there been an update on when play could resume?

Greg Wyshynski: The closest deadline to consider is the self-quarantine period the league established for the players. That ends on April 4, although it has already been extended once. As for getting the season going, the CDC recommended on March 15 that mass gatherings of people be limited for the next 60 days. The NHL hoped to open training camps 45 days into that time period, which would mean the end of April or early May. That’s the next milepost in this journey: deciding whether that target was realistic or, given how things are playing out around the U.S. and Canada, it needs to be extended.

The NHL remains steadfast in believing it can not only return to the ice for a summertime playoff tournament, but that it can also complete the regular season.

“One of the things we did almost immediately was check right away on building availability for all our clubs,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told 101 ESPN in St. Louis on Friday. “Originally, it was through the end of July. With the IOC [International Olympic Committee] cancelling the Summer Olympic Games, realistically we have a window through the end of August. That’s for building dates. Again, a lot of different factors involved.”

Much, if not all, of this depends on the federal and local governmental restrictions on “shelter in place,” mass gatherings and especially travel. Then there are the medical experts whose input will be vital in determining when it’s safe for the players to return to competition.

“Everyone talks about that curve: when it flattens, when it starts to reverse; when there’s not a danger in being around other people and in their presence,” said Daly. “We’re going to be looking for the advice and the blessing from the health experts.”

That’s all going to take some time.

“We’ll get to a point when we’re going to have to eliminate some options. The next couple of weeks are going to tell us whether we’re looking at expansive opportunities or if our options are more limited,” said Daly.

But he added: “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The players have started talking to the media. What have they said?

Emily Kaplan: The NHL has arranged Zoom conference calls — stars, they’re just like us! — with a player representative from each team. It began on Thursday with the Metropolitan Division and will continue through Tuesday.

Besides a glimpse into everyone’s home setups, we learned that Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby wouldn’t mind skipping right to the playoffs if the season could resume; of course, it helps that the Capitals and Penguins are first and third in the division, respectively. Meanwhile, Mark Giordano said he doesn’t think the NHL will realistically have time for regular-season games. “I think you go 12 and 12,” the Flames captain said. “More teams get in this year. Maybe a couple byes at the top.”

Meanwhile, Connor McDavid said: “You want a fair season. And a fair season is a full season. If we can do that, I think that’s something we’d obviously prefer.”

As McDavid noted, “I don’t think we can just step into playoffs, Game 1, Calgary-Edmonton just run around killing each other.”

We’ve gotten a few PSAs from players: Anze Kopitar preached that “socially distancing is going to be huge to flattening the curve,” while Logan Couture said it’s important to support local businesses during this time. Ovechkin shared a message to fans: “The most important thing is to take care of yourself, take care of your family, friends. Help each other. Just be safe. Right now, it is a hard time. We all miss you … right now, we are together, and we have to fight through it together.”

As for how NHL stars are biding their time? It sounds like a ton of guys have been fixated on Netflix’s docuseries “Tiger King.” Crosby and Jordan Staal both recommended another Netflix docuseries, “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.” Ovechkin prefers the TV show “Deal or No Deal.” Claude Giroux bought an XBox, but after getting schooled by Scott Laughton in FIFA 20, he gave up on playing.

Perhaps the most impressive flex so far is that Ryan Getzlaf built a chicken coop in his backyard. He took the media on a tour, and it’s quite the backyard setup.

Headline: “Duck builds chicken coop.” Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf has constructed a coop at his house during the NHL’s season pause. But the veteran put that postponement in perspective on a video call. “We’re not going to complain about pausing our season when there are people dying and life is going on as it is,” he said. “We’ve had lockouts before. It’s just another thing in our life we have to deal with professionally. But the biggest worry for us is keeping our families safe.”

Greg Wyshynski, ESPN3d ago

Have any more players tested positive?

Kaplan: On Wednesday, the NHL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, called it “fortunate” that the NHL has had only two positive COVID-19 tests; both were players for the Ottawa Senators.

“I think we were fortunate in making the decision on March 12 to not only pause play, but actually have players go into self-quarantine, including staff and coaches,” Meeuwisse said. “We have a pretty good idea now, because we’re almost at the two-week mark, that the likelihood of them being affected prior to that period is pretty low. That doesn’t mean someone can’t be exposed now.”

Indeed, later in the week, the Avs announced two of their players tested positive, though one has already recovered.

How are players staying in shape?

Kaplan: Some players are fortunate enough to have a full home-gym setup. Nick Foligno, for example, has plenty of equipment at his home in Columbus and has been doing Zoom sessions with his personal trainer. Some guys, such as Ovechkin, are even luckier; his personal trainer flew in from Russia and has been working with the Caps’ captain. Anders Lee said he ordered a Peloton bike when his apartment gym got shut down. He’s also trying to run with his dogs outside.

Crosby said he has a stationary bike but has been doing a ton of push-ups. “It’s kind of old-school,” Crosby. “At this point, whatever you can get done, you get done. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Meeuwisse said, “It is important that they try to maintain their conditioning so we can resume play if the conditions change substantially, but it’s very difficult to do.”

As Foligno notes: “I was thinking about some of my teammates who live in condos and stuff, and it must be so tough to tell them to stay ready, and you’re doing push-ups and sit-ups, and there’s nothing else.”

The NHL has assured players they will get an “adequate” training camp before play resumes.

The league announced that the scouting combine, awards and draft have been postponed. What are some takeaways from that?

Wyshynski: That collective “sigh” you heard were all the team executives, players and media who were looking forward to late-June trips to Las Vegas and Montreal to kiss the season goodbye …

Fret not: The NHL has said Montreal is going to host the draft at some point. It hasn’t ruled out having one there in 2020, if time and logistics allow it, although increasingly many around the NHL believe this year’s draft could be a closed-to-the-pubic cloistering in a single hotel venue or be held electronically. If Montreal doesn’t hold a draft this year, it might have to wait until 2022, as there has been strong speculation that Seattle could host the draft and have its expansion draft in June 2021.

As for the draft lottery and draft order, that can’t be determined until the NHL figures out what the rest of the season looks like.

The scouting combine is where teams held the final interviews with prospects. According to the NHL, central scouting director Dan Marr is informing teams on policies and protocols for conducting interviews and psychological tests remotely.

Keep this in mind for anything related to the offseason: Each team’s machinery is still turning during this shutdown.

“I’m having four to five video meetings a day with different departments,” one NHL GM told ESPN this week. The scouting team, player personnel and other departments are forging ahead toward the offseason, even if the work is being done remotely.

As for the NHL awards, Daly told NHL.com: “I have not even begun to consider it at this point in time, so I can’t tell you one way or the other on that.”

Keep in mind that in 2013 — the last time the NHL didn’t have an awards show, due to the lockout — it split the announcement of awards winners over two nights during the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.

What about things such as free agency and the salary cap?

Wyshynski: The salary cap is calculated as a percentage of the NHL’s revenue from the previous season. Initial projections indicated that next season’s cap could be between $84 million and $88.2 million, up from $81.5 million this season.

And then all of this happened.

Daly said there’s going to be a “dramatic shortfall” in revenue this season, even if the league finds a way to finish it out this summer. “If you followed the formula that’s prescribed in the CBA, I know the cap wouldn’t look like what it was projected to look like a month ago,” he said this week. “So that’s going to be something we talk about with the players’ association: who has contracts, what those contracts are and what fits, and what our transition rules generally are as we head into next season.”

That could mean the cap drops or stays flat next season, but there are certain exceptions in place for players currently under contract that would put a team over it. One thing is clear: Neither the NHL nor the National Hockey League Players’ Association want a situation in which teams are making desperation sell-offs. Especially since they might not have time.

Free agency will happen at some point before next season, and if the NHL is playing games through August, that could mean a rather tight window for it.

But that won’t be a problem, as Daly told 101 ESPN in St. Louis: “A shortened free-agency period is something that’s not unprecedented. And if you look at most of the work that gets done in free agency, it’s usually in the first 10 days and the last 10 days, anyway. So if you looked at it that way, a three-week, free-agency period is more than sufficient. I don’t think you need an extended free-agency period.”

What’s the latest on team- and league-employee compensation?

Kaplan: There’s no question the NHL is going to take a hit financially from this crisis. According to the New York Post, “the NHL has informed the NHLPA that revenue losses could range from the best-case low of a couple of hundred million dollars to a worst-case amount of up to one billion dollars.” The NHL confirmed to ESPN that it is temporarily reducing salaries of everyone working in the league office by 25% beginning April 1 (to be reflected in April 15 paychecks). The NHL is hoping the pay cuts can prevent future layoffs.

Across the league, teams are looking at their own finances and figuring out how they can sustain without bringing in revenue. The first area many teams tackled is part-time employees, or those who work at the arenas during games. Thirty of the NHL’s 31 teams set up a fund to help game-day employees who lost work because of the pandemic. The Bruins were the last team to commit, and said they would pay only “if” the season gets canceled. Then this week, Delaware North, the company chaired by Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, announced that 150 members of the NHL team and employees at TD Garden will either be placed on temporary leave or have their salaries reduced.

The next area teams are looking at is their full-time staff. On Monday, the Devils became first known NHL team to act. Salaried, full-time employees of the Devils (as well as the NBA’s 76ers) were informed they would be subject to temporary pay cuts of up to 20% and would be moving to a four-day workweek. But on Tuesday, ownership for the teams came out and said that “after listening to our staff and players, it’s clear that was the wrong decision. We have reversed it and will be paying these employees their full salary.” The Montreal Canadiens are temporarily laying off 60% of employees, although the ownership group has established a $6 million assistance fund that will enhance employment insurance to make sure employees receive 80% of their salary for the following eight weeks; this fund will also be available for loans to employees.

Teams around the league are now grappling with this, and a front-office source told ESPN he believes it will be a 50-50 split across the league of who can maintain their full staff and who will have to make cuts. The Dallas Stars‘ general manager and president voluntarily took 50% salary cuts during the NHL’s coronavirus pause, hoping that can help ownership from making tough decisions. Vinnie Viola, owner of the Florida Panthers, committed to keeping all full-time salaried employees and told them they will not have to take a pay cut during this crisis. Aaron Portzline of The Athletic reported that the Blue Jackets made a similar decision.

Have any players, teams or companies stepped up to help the crisis?

Kaplan: Plenty of NHL players and teams have donated to COVID-19 relief efforts in their communities. A handful of examples:

  • Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews donated $100,000 to a Chicago-centric fund.

  • Henrik Lundqvist donated $100,000 to the New York food bank.

  • Lightning players banded together to donate 500,000 meals to a Tampa Bay food pantry, and they are also helping fund part-time arena workers’ salaries.

  • Matt Dumba made a donation to Aces, a program looking to eliminate the academic achievement gap in the Twin Cities.

  • Several players — John Klingberg and Jonathan Huberdeau were among the first — have donated items for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund auction

  • The Penguins spearheaded a cool initiative in which they donated 35 laptops that will be distributed to families in the Pittsburgh area that wouldn’t otherwise have access to online learning while schools are closed.

Bauer, one of the leading hockey equipment manufacturers, has repurposed its North American facilities to begin producing medical shields for nurses, doctors and other first responders. The company does not expect to make any profit on the new endeavor. As of last week, there were a dozen employees working at Bauer’s Liverpool, New York, facility — which typically focuses on the lacrosse business — and approximately 20 in its Quebec facility, which usually produces custom skates for Bauer’s elite hockey athletes across the world, including Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov and Henrik Lundqvist. Bauer CEO Ed Kinnaly said he expects those worker numbers to grow as demand increases. “That’s the ancillary benefit to it,” Kinnaly said. “We can keep some people employed to work on these.”

Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens stepped up in a different way recently, recording a robocall for the Quebec government, asking people to take measures against the spread of COVID-19.

Is there professional hockey being played anywhere right now?

Wyshynski: What, you thought a global pandemic would slow down the Belarusian Extraleague’s playoffs? The championship final between HC Yunost-Minsk and Shakhtyor Soligorsk began on March 28, after the league played its previous postseason rounds in arenas filled with fans. The games have steamed on YouTube, leading tech-savvy and hockey-starved fans to watch a bit of the action, with the (often hilarious) English-translation captions on.

If you’re wondering why Belarus is still playing while the rest of the world is shut down, please consider the nation’s leader, President Alexander Lukashenko. According to Sky News, he believes coronavirus infections can be prevented by drinking “50 milliliters of vodka a day to ward off the virus, but not at work” and with “regular trips to the sauna, working in the fields and having breakfast on time.”

Finally, what are the teams and players doing to keep connected with fans as the pause continues?

Wyshynski: Many teams are promoting simulated games as a way for fans to remain engaged with their teams. The New Jersey Devils, however, are going above and beyond with actual postgame player interviews on video chat. Here is Devils forward Kyle Palmieri discussing what “virtual” Kyle Palmieri did in a “win” over the Philadelphia Flyers in a simulated game:

As far as we know, virtual stats cannot be used in salary arbitration …

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