In the two months since the NHL paused its season, not much has changed.
Games remain postponed, players are scattered, and questions outnumber answers.
But despite the uncertainty, the NHL continues to wade into uncharted territory by attempting to navigate a return during the coronavirus pandemic — even while its top developmental league canceled its season Monday.
The American Hockey League became the latest domino to fall in the hockey world, nixing the remainder of its regular-season schedule and the playoffs after determining resumption and completion weren’t feasible.
Instead, the league — which, like the NHL, suspended its season on March 12 — is focused on preparing for 2020-21. This will be the first time since the AHL’s inception in 1936-37 that the Calder Cup won’t be awarded, a tough blow for the Wild’s affiliate because the Iowa Wild would have been a contender for the championship had the season continued.
Before the stoppage, Iowa ranked fourth overall in the league and its 37 victories tied the franchise record. Forward Sam Anas led the AHL in points (70) and assists (50), while teammate Gerry Mayhew had a league-best 39 goals. Kaapo Kahkonen’s 25 victories were tops among goalies.
Although the team’s prolific run was cut short, it’s still possible some players get back on the ice, since NHL clubs might need reinforcements if they resume play.
Still, the potential of that remains vague even though details keep emerging about how the NHL might relaunch. One target the league has in mind is opening team facilities for small group activities in mid- to late May.
Specific guidelines haven’t been announced, and this progression is contingent upon circumstances trending favorably. But it would be the first step toward an eventual training camp ahead of actual games.
One significant hurdle could be competitive balance; while some NHL markets would currently be allowed to open their facilities to players, others are still limited by stay-at-home orders — a mixed bag that could impede an across-the-board decision.
Getting players back to their NHL cities is another issue.
After the league shut down, players were allowed to travel home and some have left the country — including a handful of Wild players. Not only could travel restrictions make a return tricky, but a potential self-quarantine period afterward could also delay getting back to work.
As of a few weeks ago, Wild winger Kevin Fiala had yet to hear of a plan for how he would leave Sweden, where he has been staying during the layoff.
These aren’t the only challenges facing the NHL, though.
It’s unclear if the league would salvage the regular season or fast forward to the playoffs; if the latter is the case, an expanded field is a possibility and one that would surely include the Wild. But if the current 16-team format is upheld, the Wild would be on the outside looking in since it sat a point shy of a playoff position. It would remain out even if teams were reorganized based on points percentage.
Since shelving the idea of neutral-site games in non-NHL arenas, the league appears to have turned its attention to picking hub cities to host the action. Minnesota is reportedly in consideration.
Even if the NHL settles on a select number of locations and secures the green light from local and government officials, the execution of the season still figures to be a complicated process.
What’s expected of players under this scenario could be a thorny debate.
Last week, Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk said he wouldn’t be interested in holing up in a city for months at a time without seeing his family — a response that highlighted the importance of ironing out an off-ice criteria that suits players.
Fans are unlikely to attend, but a safe workflow for those who are allowed inside arenas would have to be implemented. Testing seems like a given, but gathering the necessary resources may not be easy. And a positive test from a player could unleash new problems, even though Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told TSN last month the NHL doesn’t believe one positive test — or even multiple positive tests — would shut the entire operation down.
Where does draft fit in?
How the NHL calendar would be impacted by finishing the season is also up in the air.
Already the draft has been postponed; the NHL has discussed holding the event before the season ends, but that hasn’t been finalized and the prospect presents another wave of concerns — from the logistics of the draft lottery to the effect on the trade market.
The draft is usually a hotbed for activity during the offseason, but teams still expecting to play may not make moves like they typically would and therefore might not have as much roster and spending flexibility for next season.
Not knowing how the salary cap will change could also affect planning, and what’s on the horizon for 2020-21 is also murky.
A complete schedule is the NHL’s intention, although the league has postponed its international slate of games, but the season might start much later than usual — especially if the current one extends into August or September.
So, while the action on the ice is still dormant, plenty is going on behind the scenes to explore how the NHL could restart the season and a Return to Play Committee has been formed.
Whether this search for solutions will be successful is anybody’s guess, but what has become increasingly clear since the league went dark is the NHL’s commitment to finding a way to play.