I think it’s more than safe to call the NHL’s Return to Play plan from this summer a success, or at least it has been so far (knock on wood). Moving forward however, there are a lot more questions than answers on what the league’s plans might be heading into next season.
With the draft currently being scheduled around October 6-7, and free agency within a week of that, a lot of people are pegging roughly a December 1 date to kick off the regular season.
Starting a regular season during the pandemic will be an entirely new challenge for the NHL. The bubble has worked tremendously in these playoffs, but can we really expect the same thing for regular season games. Regular season games can seem monotonous enough at times when there’s fans and players can go home after games, but in a bubble, it just doesn’t feel realistically doable especially if the league is focused on an 82 game season.
The next question would be, where does the NHL go from here? If we look at other major sports leagues who are playing regular season games, it appears travelling to regular venues without fans is the way to go. The risks that come with this approach is the possibility of a COVID outbreak or outbreaks amongst teams. Look at how the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals seasons were thrown into disarray after a slew of positive tests. And I don’t think you can easily make up games in hockey with same day doubleheaders like baseball has.
We also saw how the Toronto Blue Jays were denied by the Canadian government to host games in Toronto which feels like the right move after all we’ve seen. They’ve since relocated to their AAA affiliate in Buffalo for home games. In a league with 1 Canadian team, it’s not much of a hassle, but it certainly wouldn’t be a lot of fun for eight Canadian teams to relocate to the US for a season and could be a logistical nightmare.
With that in mind, I’d like to propose an idea for the 2020-21 season:
An All-Canadian Division
It’s an idea that has certainly been thrown around before, but often turned down on the basis of being a bit of a scheduling nightmare. However the COVID nightmare south of the border could very possibly outweigh the scheduling nightmare in the minds of Canadian teams, the league, and the Canadian Government if they have to decide whether or not to approve regular cross-border travel in the NHL.
With seven team in the new Canadian Division, the league could topload the schedule with only divisional matchups for the first three months or so of the season to buy more time to really establish strong cross-border protocols if it is appropriate and progress is made against the virus. If needed, the league could do the whole season that way if things really aren’t improving in the US.
To complete the re-alignment, it would make sense to bunch the remaining Pacific teams plus Dallas and Colorado together into a “Southwest” Division and then split the remaining teams out East. Heck if we wanted to get really crazy the league could move the Panthers to Quebec for a season to round out the East a bit better and put eight teams in Canada.
I don’t think there are many people who would dislike the idea of a Canadian division either. The opportunity to play the Habs and Leafs more frequently, or have 5+ Tkachuk bowls a year would be a nice refresh from a traditional schedule.
If you want an example similar to this that’s already been done, look no further than how the AHL has constructed their Pacific Division. The Stockton Heat played just eight of their 68 regular season games outside of their division in 2018-19. The AHL has used this mainly to cut down on travel costs with the majority of the league being across the country, but it’s a similar idea to a Canadian Division, just for different reasons. Teams could also perhaps play each opponent a couple of times on a single road trip, for example playing six or even nine games on an Eastern swing instead of the traditional three to further cut back travel costs.
Sure the games could get stale against some of the opponents, but 10-12 games a year against the Oilers would be can’t miss hockey. It would be a creative solution to a difficult problem, and would be a lot of fun for hockey fans in this country.