Phase 3 of the NHL’s plan to return to play is under two weeks away, after the coronavirus pandemic forced a stoppage in mid-March. Training camps open July 10 ahead of the eventual 24-team tournament to be played in two hub cities. On top of that, we had the first stage of the NHL draft lottery on Friday night, and collective bargaining negotiations are heating up.
As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every week, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL’s relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice game action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week’s update, including the first draft-related domino and a little more clarity on where these games might be played. Get caught up on it all here:
The Tampa Bay Lightning facility reopened this week. Is everything back on track in Phase 2?
Emily Kaplan: On Wednesday, the Lightning reopened their facilities, just five days after three players and several staffers tested positive for COVID-19, which had shut down all Phase 2 operations. Eighteen Lightning players had been participating in voluntary workouts at Amalie Arena and a practice rink in nearby Brandon, Florida. Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said all Lightning players who tested positive were asymptomatic, other than a low-grade fever. Per NHL protocols, those players are now self-isolating in a 14-day quarantine, along with anyone they’ve come into close contact with (think family members or roommates).
It’s not just the Lightning. Last week, the NHL announced that out of more than 200 players who had been regularly tested since June 8, 11 had tested positive — which, if you’re curious, is roughly the same percentage of NBA players who have tested positive so far (the NBA says it has 16 positive cases out of 302 tests).
Even though Florida is seeing a spike in coronavirus cases (as are several new “hot spots” in the United States, including Texas, and Arizona), the NHL is going full steam ahead with its return-to-play program. In fact, last week, the NHL expanded rules to allow 12 players on the ice for on-ice sessions. Initially, only six were allowed on the ice at a time.
What are the league and the players still working on finalizing ahead of Phase 3’s expected start on July 10?
Greg Wyshynski: There have been two separate, but undeniably related, negotiations going on between the NHL and the players: the return-to-play protocols and an extension of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is due to expire in September 2022.
The return-to-play vote is essentially simple: Do the players want to come back to complete the 2019-20 season in a 24-team tournament spread out between two hub cities, living in a quarantine bubble for up to two and a half months? There are complicated issues that inform that decision, including testing protocols, the ability to see their families, life during off days inside the bubbles and much more. But this is the question on which they’ll vote.
And it’s hard to get a handle on the players’ sentiments. Older players with families and at-risk relatives are going to approach this differently than a 22-year-old who just wants to play hockey. Players who have been plugged into this process, such as the ones who returned to training facilities, will have a greater amount of information than a player who has been unplugged and living abroad. There have been many debates — reportedly intense ones — and cajoling behind the scenes.
What about the collective bargaining part of the vote?
Wyshynski: Multiple sources told ESPN on Friday that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are closing in on a new collective bargaining agreement. It would cover the next two seasons (which are currently covered in the present deal), and then four more after that, giving the NHL labor stability as it negotiates a new U.S. television contract.
Coming into the negotiation, the players’ biggest concern was escrow, or the percentage of withholding from their paychecks each season to maintain a 50-50 revenue split between the players and owners. That concern grew after the massive revenue losses for the NHL this season due to the COVID-19 shutdown on March 12 and a postseason that will be played inside empty arenas. There were projections that the players’ escrow percentage could balloon as high as 35% next season. Instead, the CBA framework being discussed would cap escrow at 20% for the 2020-21 season. The players would also defer 10% of their salaries next season, which would both protect it from that high escrow and give owners additional cash flow. The players would get that back in around two years.
Another small change to escrow: With the assumption that the players wouldn’t get any of that 20% withholding back after the season, teams could access that money during the season rather than “settle up” after the 2020-21 campaign.
The escrow rate would drop slightly in 2021-22 but would remain capped. By the third year of the deal, it would revert back to the current system, with the hopes that business would be normalized, and that both the U.S. television deal and the Seattle expansion franchise would pump additional revenue into the league.
Then there’s the salary cap. Remember, the NHL’s salary cap is linked to revenue. Lower revenue, lower cap. To avoid a huge decrease in the ceiling next year, the NHL and the players would artificially keep the cap at $81. 5 million for the next two seasons and then raise it $1 million to $82.5 million in 2022-23. Later in the CBA, it would be “relinked” to revenue.
There are a number of other big issues to be decided, including the future of international play, but we’ve heard about positive movement on these financial issues for weeks. The entire NHLPA would vote on either a memorandum of understanding, or the CBA extension itself, at the same time they vote on a return-to-play protocol. That vote is expected this week.
How would you rate the current level of comfort with the return to play among players after a discouraging week?
Kaplan: It’s tough to gauge everyone’s comfort level moving forward for one specific reason: Players don’t yet have comprehensive information on what returning to play actually entails.
Veteran Jason Spezza, who has been active in NHLPA talks, summed up how a lot of players feel about the current wave of positive tests. “Us as players, we realize there’s going to be some risk of a positive test, especially in the phases that we’re in right now,” Spezza said. The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ forward added, “I’m pretty confident that once we get into hub cities, we’ll be able to do a good job of keeping it out. I think getting there is going to be the challenge, and that’s where it takes a little bit of discipline for us as players to make sure we don’t kind of derail the plans.”
Right now all hockey activities are voluntary, but once mandatory training camp begins, the stakes change. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Associated Press this week that he doesn’t expect the league to put teams in quarantined “bubbles” for training camps. But other than that, players don’t know much.
“I think the thing is, the players don’t have all the information yet of what Phase 3 and Phase 4 are going to look like,” Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told me this week. “I think the devil is in the details, I think they need to be able to picture what their life is going to be like. Right now it’s a bit abstract.”
Bowman said he hasn’t heard from any Blackhawks players or staffers yet who have said they don’t want to participate in this summer’s tournament. “But as we get more information, I suppose that could come up,” Bowman said. “I have not heard from anyone in our group, but I have heard some reports that some players around the league are concerned, and some coaches.”
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and scientist based in Toronto, has been retained by the NHLPA for expert advice during the pause. During an interview with TSN this week, Bogoch said it was “completely reasonable” if some players choose not to return, and that “everybody has to make up their mind about what their risk threshold and risk perception is.”
“There’s a lot of good planning in place, and the ones that I’ve seen look very safe,” Bogoch told TSN. “But nothing is perfect, of course nothing is perfect, and some people might just say, ‘Thank you, it’s just not for me,’ And that’s OK, too.”
One agent told me this week that at least one of his clients “is weighing whether joining his team this summer is worth it.” When asked further, the agent revealed only that the concerns stemmed from “health and family reasons.” There are rumblings around the league that a handful of players could opt out, but we likely won’t hear specific names until the Phase 3 and Phase 4 protocols are announced.
We’re down to five potential hub cities. What’s the latest in getting that down to the final two?
Wyshynski: With Vancouver’s surprise withdrawal from the hub city derby, the field is down to Las Vegas, Toronto, Edmonton, Los Angeles and Chicago. Despite climbing COVID-19 positive testing numbers in Nevada, there continues to be heavy speculation that Las Vegas will be one of the hubs. There’s a lot of chatter that Toronto is the preference for the players of the two remaining choices; the NHL also has experience with holding a massive tournament in Toronto, which was the site of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Sources indicate Toronto would host the Eastern Conference teams, and Las Vegas would host the West, if those two cities are chosen.
As of Sunday, the NHL was going over details on the hub cities with its medical team and wasn’t yet prepared to make an announcement on the hubs — but a league source told ESPN “we’re almost there.” It’s assumed the league would announce the hub cities before the players would vote on a return to play.
You mentioned Nevada’s rising numbers. That doesn’t hurt Las Vegas’ chances?
Kaplan: There were 1,099 new COVID-19 cases in Nevada on Saturday, which marks the highest single-day jump and a new record for the state. And 970 of those cases were in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Yet as of now, it appears the NHL is still targeting Vegas as a hub city. Simply put, the NHL loves the set-up in Las Vegas, including its large number of luxury hotels near T-Mobile Arena, and feels confident it can create a strong bubble environment there.
However if the NHL or its players do get nervous about the prospect of going to Vegas, sources say the NHL is comfortable going with two Canadian hub cities. At this moment, that feels unlikely, but it is an option.
What’s the latest on what playoff rosters might look like?
Kaplan: NHL teams have been told they are allowed to carry 28 players for the postseason, plus as many goalies as they wish (to prevent a David Ayres situation, even though calling in an EBUG feels perfectly on-brand in this summer of chaos). Most teams have already notified their minor league players who will be part of the taxi squad; these guys are commonly known as “black aces.”
Players are starting to return to their playing cities to get ready, especially because some must serve seven- or 14-day quarantine periods, depending on where they are traveling to and from. Sources told ESPN there was a charter plane that flew from Helsinki, Finland, to New York on Friday that carried “quite a few” Finnish NHL players who had returned to Europe over the pause.
There is one lingering question, which should be resolved this week: Can unsigned draft picks sign contracts and immediately join their teams to play this summer? This includes two high-profile Russian players in goalie Ilya Sorokin, a New York Islanders draft pick, and winger Kirill Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild prospect and one of the most dynamic forwards playing outside of the NHL right now. There is also defenseman Ian Mitchell, who agreed to join the Blackhawks after three years at the University of Denver.
“The last time I heard anything, the NHL was taking the position that they were not going to be allowing current-year contracts when we start back up,” Bowman said. “Obviously it’s still a negotiation point between the union and the NHL, but I haven’t heard anything in about a month on that. So the default, as of today, is that Ian is not available, which is disappointing because he would have been a prime-time player for us.”
The first part of the draft lottery was Friday night. What happened, and what lies ahead for the teams still in need of a draft slot?
Wyshynski: In a word, chaos. Please recall that the NHL draft lottery included the seven teams that didn’t make the 24-team postseason tournament as well as eight “placeholder” spots, representing the eight teams that will be eliminated in the qualification round. Well, one of those placeholder spots actually won the lottery for the first overall pick, meaning a team in the postseason will have a one-in-eight chance of drafting phenom winger Alexis Lafreniere in a second lottery draw to be held after the qualification round.
We spell out the scenarios, as well the winners and losers in the draft lottery, in our analysis article here. But long story short: Lafreniere could be drafted by any of eight teams that were outside the playoffs but drawn into the postseason, or eight teams that were in playoff spots when the season was paused based on points percentage. There’s an equal chance he could end up on a .500 team (Montreal) or a .623 team that also has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), depending on who wins their qualification round series.
Now, to get pessimistic for a moment: If the season isn’t completed due to COVID-19, Sportsnet reports that the lottery would include the bottom four teams in each conference: the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets in the East, and the Blackhawks, Arizona Coyotes, Wild and Winnipeg Jets in the West.
And as always, what’s your latest pop culture obsession this week?
Kaplan: I need a new book! Any recommendations? I’ll take any and all suggestions on Twitter.
Wyshynski: “Taste the Nation,” from Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi, dropped 10 episodes on Hulu, and it’s a delight. Not only as a food travelogue, but also for its investigation of how food moves from immigrant and native communities to the American mainstream — and how injustices against those communities helped, in a way, to create that cuisine. While it travels in some heavy stuff, it’s ultimately inspiring and fabulously watchable. It’s less gonzo than the late Anthony Bourdain’s similar programs, but very much in that spirit.