What the exact thought process is for the 2020-21 NHL season still remains up in the air, but information has started to slowly emerge at what hockey fans could be seeing when the puck finally drops.
Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed on Tuesday during a virtual panel that the NHL is looking into short-term hubs and realignment to start the new season. The league’s Board of Governors met virtually on Thursday and there was a report out earlier this week the league could present a plan in that meeting.
Locally, what does this all mean for the New York Islanders?
The Islanders season ended in mid-September after falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, like the rest of the NHL, the team has been waiting to see what happens for next season.
“It’s different. It’s almost like we’re back at the end of the year before the playoffs,” Ryan Pulock recently said about trying to train for next season with no firm start date. “Kind of that uncertainty and when we might start. What it’s going to look like. I think for myself it’s kind of just preparing for that early January date because no one knows.”
It would appear by all accounts that the NHL is fully invested in getting things going on or as close to that Jan. 1 date as possible. The number of games remains uncertain though it looks as though it could be anywhere between 50 and 72 according to reports in the New York Post and Sportsnet.
While the length of the season will impact every team, it won’t have the same direct impact on the Islanders as some of the other issues facing the 2020-21 season.
Hub Cities vs. Playing at home
It’s a big question for NHL owners and players. The NHL is weighing two options for the upcoming year, starting the season in hub cities with less stringent restrictions like they had in the playoffs or allow teams to play in their home rinks.
The hubs would be a shorter stay for teams and they would be rotated out, Bettman said during a virtual panel during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit.
“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days,” Bettman said, according to NHL.com. “You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need. It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we’re talking about.”
For the New York Islanders that means, at least to start the season, they would not be playing at Nassau Coliseum and depending on where the hub city is fans won’t be in the building. For a league that makes a large portion of its revenue at the gate that would be a tough pill to swallow.
However, the idea that clubs may be able to play at their home rinks is also a possibility, but with the caveat that local restrictions might prohibit fans from being in the stands. Other states have allowed limited numbers of fans to attend NFL games this year, but COVID-19 cases have begun to spike in the New York area and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has implemented new restrictions across the state.
And the ban on fans in attendance for professional sporting events remains in place. If things remain the same, that would mean the Islanders would be playing in front of an empty Nassau Coliseum, at least to start the year, until restrictions start to be pulled back.
One of the really interesting things that will come out of this whole situation will be a temporary divisional realignment. As of now, the border between the United States and Canada remains closed for nonessential travel meaning that the seven teams based north of the border won’t be able to travel back and forth for games.
That all leads to a likely all Canadian division for a period of time next season and a shift to a more geographic divisional alignment.
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown,” Bettman said. “We may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense.”
For the New York Islanders that means they could see Columbus and Carolina move to southeast type division, which would benefit the Islanders since both clubs have historically given New York trouble.
The Islanders are 63-69-9-7 historically against the Hurricanes.
However, it would mean they would see the Boston Bruins move into their division this season. Boston went 44-14-12 during the 2019-20 regular season and dismantled the Islanders in their final meeting of the year at Nassau Coliseum on a day they honored Butch Goring and announced that the final season before Belmont would be played on Long Island.
So while the Islanders would see two tough opponents moved to another division, they would still have to contend with a Boston Bruins team that is no pushover either.