By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
After weeks of wondering about the NHL season, news emerged late Friday of a plan supported by the NHL and NHLPA. The details of the plan include playoff formats, expanded rosters, and more. By the time you read this article, votes by the NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA executive committee may make it official. Training camps will open for most teams on January 3rd with a 56-game regular season set to commence on January 13th. Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Bill Daly have said that teams will play games solely inside regionally constructed divisions to reduce travel. Teams are hoping to play games in their home buildings. However, one major issue still needs to be resolved by this coming Monday, where Canadian teams will open their seasons.
Quote from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly:— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) December 19, 2020
“We have a tentative Agreement with the Players’ Association on plans for the 2020/21 NHL Season. The agreement is subject to approval by both of our respective constituencies.''
Challenges in Canada
A new wrench has been thrown into the mix for the NHL in the last few days. According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Canadian health authorities and provincial governments are balking at a trans-national division with teams traipsing across the country to play games. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News further confirmed the concerns of the Canadian Public Health Agency suggesting their apprehensions could force the NHL to explore alternate options for the teams north of the 45th parallel.
Sources: The NHL could move games involving Canadian teams to the United States in 2021 if its unable to reach agreement with provincial health authorities.https://t.co/bcdciuQBZs— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) December 17, 2020
Options for Canadian teams
The NHL, its teams, and players seem to favor playing their seasons in their home rinks and cities. However, without sign-off from national and provincial health authorities, this will not be possible. While many might say it’s hockey, they will find a way to make it work, one only needs to look at the experience of the non-hockey Toronto-based professional sports teams. The Toronto Blue Jays of MLB were forced to play their season in Buffalo, NY (basically Canada). Toronto FC of MLS spent the second half of their truncated season in Hartford, CT. The Toronto Raptors, who play in the same building as the Maple Leafs, will be snowbirds this NBA season wintering in Tampa, FL. There is definitely a precedent for Canadian health authorities and governments, who have generally responded with more caution and restrictions than US authorities to the current pandemic, to put a damper on the NHL’s plans. The NHL, given the situation, has no other choice than consider alternate options while still hoping to come to an agreement with the authorities. Below is a list of the NHL’s backup plans.
ICYMI – INSIDER TRADING: #TSNHockey Insiders discuss…— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) December 18, 2020
– Possibility of 🇨🇦 NHL teams playing in 🇺🇸; dropping all-Canadian division idea and how it pressures provincial governments
– 👀 on RFAs Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mathew Barzal
WATCH 🌍: https://t.co/VnAp0ntLOo pic.twitter.com/zTiTXITZKF
The NHL could choose to create a Canadian bubble. The bubble could be an extended one much like the playoffs. To allay player’s concerns they could also allow families and partners to join. However, there does not seem to be a huge appetite for this as players do not seem inclined to return to such a setup. It is also complicated and expensive with each bubble rumored to cost $75-90 million.
Short term bubbles could be a solution. Teams would remain at their regular facilities where they will practice and train. They would come together and bubble for short durations of one to two weeks to play a bevy of games against each other. They would then return home, rinse, and repeat. A major concern here though is the safety of players playing so many games in such a tight window. It flies in the playoffs but doing so over 50 and change games seem less palatable.
Relocation to the States
Finally, Canadian teams could end up spending their season south of the border like TFC, the Blue Jays, and the Raptors. However, the NHL has seven Canadian teams, not one like the MLB and NBA and three in MLS. This means relocation of a much more substantial number of players and personnel who will be less than enthused with the arrangement.
It’s three weeks away, but difficult to see Santa Clara County allowing the Sharks to practice Dec. 31.— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzNHL) December 10, 2020
As I reported yesterday, that means the Sharks are likely to begin training camp somewhere in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. https://t.co/gZu5HIv6iz
It should also be noted that the Canadian teams are not the only ones struggling to figure out if they can start their seasons in their home cities. A source with Vancouver confirmed to me that the Canucks are hosting informal skates and Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs shared in a recent interview that he and his teammates have been gathering for pre-season skates at their team facility. However, the San Jose Sharks have not been approved for such activities and have temporarily relocated to Arizona following the lead of the San Francisco 49ers. They are likely to open training camp there and it is possible they play some or all of their regular season in the Grand Canyon state.
What does this mean for the Bruins?
At Blackngoldhockey.com we are always especially concerned about what this means for the Bruins. We reported on the proposed division realignment as the story dropped in recent weeks. According to the reports, the Bruins would play this season in a division with Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. We also took a look at how the boys wearing the spoked B stack up against this proposed division, one that includes five playoff teams from last year and a couple of teams trending upwards.
However, the Canadian teams being forced to move southward would change things in a hurry. The NHL has stated it wants to limit travel this year as much as possible, meaning the site teams relocate too could dictate what division they play in. The Bruins proposed division currently lacks rivals Tampa Bay, Toronto, and of course Montreal. It’s possible a revised division could include all three. The Lightning remain frightening coming off their recent championship. The Leafs added some veteran grit to their high-end talent. The Canadiens became much deeper upfront in the off-season through free agency, trades, and player development. It would be exciting to see the Bruins continue to lock horns with these foes but it could also create an even tougher path to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Time will tell exactly what the structure of the season looks like and who the Bruins will actually play. Word needs to come soon for any hope of a mid-January start to the season. Any plan will also require flexibility as we have seen throughout this pandemic that things can change at a moment’s notice. Here is hoping for a speedy and healthy puck drop.