NHL general managers are about to enter yet another great unknown.
And like the rest of the world, it’s something they’ve become accustomed to these past 10 months.
The 2019-20 season was suspended in March because of COVID-19 before the league pulled off a summer restart inside tightly-controlled bubbles without fans that kept the novel coronavirus at bay.
Then the draft and opening of free agency were pushed back to October, while there is a flat, stuck-in-neutral salary cap for the foreseeable future because of crushing financial realities caused by the pandemic.
With a shortened 2020-21 schedule of 56 games set to begin next week — one highlighted by realigned divisions, including an all-Canadian circuit borne out of necessity due to border restrictions — executives face more big questions.
One is this: With a bevy of the rules and regulations related to quarantines, both from governments and the NHL itself, how hard will it be to make in-season trades?
‘I think trades will be way more difficult’
“It’s something that everybody wonders,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas offered. “But because nobody’s ever gone through this, it’s hard to really say.”
Ottawa Senators counterpart Pierre Dorion was a little more definitive, at least from a Canadian perspective.
“It’s going to be very difficult to make trades with the 24 U.S.-based teams,” he said. “And then the other seven teams, you’re in competition in the same division. I think trades will be way more difficult.”
Those very exchanges have been harder to consummate in general since the league introduced its salary cap following the 2004-05 lockout. Swaps often have to be dollar in, dollar out, with many teams pushed right to the threshold of their balance sheets.
As it stands ahead of this most unusual of seasons, a player traded from one of the league’s American teams to a club in Canada would have to observe a 14-day quarantine.
And if two GMs north of the border find a deal that makes sense, players switching sides would still have to isolate for a league-mandated seven days and provide four negative tests before being cleared. But a further complication, as Dorion pointed out, is the fact the Leafs, Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks will be battling for the North Division’s four playoff spots.
“It’s going to be different,” Flames GM Brad Treliving said. “If there’s a fit and you feel it helps your team get better, I’ve never been one to shy away from that.
“But that probably doesn’t help the trade market.”
U.S. teams also have uncertainty regarding quarantine rules
Teams in the U.S. should have a little more wiggle room, but there are still quarantine rules for certain jurisdictions.
According to New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, not all trade partners will be equal in 2021.
“You have to be mindful of how urgent do you want that player,” he said. “Is it a hockey deal where this guy can come in and help your team, and do you want to wait the [quarantine period]? Or is it a future deal?
“All those things will come under consideration when we’re making moves, but there’s certainly issues that we have to deal with.”
Vegas Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon said an added wrinkle is that the NHL’s 31 GMs will only get in-person viewings of six or seven opponents — all play is strictly divisional this season — unless they head out on the road to check on another potential trade partner.
“We don’t know the [arena] access our pro scouting staff will have initially to be able to view games in other markets,” he said. “That’s going to impact teams’ abilities to prepare for the trade deadline to some degree.”
Apart from the restrictions, Dubas pointed to the 2020 baseball season as an indication there might be fewer transactions because a shorter schedule and division-only matchups — each contest will be a so-called “four-point game” — means more teams will feel they’re in the playoff race longer.
“We look back at the former short seasons and whether trades were impacted,” said Dubas, referencing the 48-game campaigns of 1994-95 and 2012-13. “But this is just a whole other set of circumstances. It’s going to be very interesting.
“If we have a chance in the season and we feel there’s something that can make a tangible difference to our group, we won’t be afraid to do it.”
This year’s trade deadline is set for April 12, but if the border and quarantine rules remain the same, some GMs expect moves will happen earlier in the schedule.
“Just to cover off that quarantine,” Treliving said. “It’s certainly something we’re going to have to take into consideration.”
There’s also a chance government restrictions could be lifted or scaled back in the coming months, but surging COVID-19 numbers on both sides of the border make anything of that nature seem a long way off.
“Who knows how it’s going to be when the deadline comes around?” said Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, who pointed out teams might be able to slip more players through waivers this season. “It was difficult to make trades in the past. It will be even more now because of COVID.”
But as always, there will be injuries, needs will arise, and pressure in certain markets will undoubtedly mount — especially if a team falters out of the gate.
“I think there will still be transactions,” Treliving said. “We’re going to have to see how it plays out.”
Just like pretty much everything else over the last 10 months.