The NHL drew closer on Tuesday to selecting two cities to serve as quarantined hubs for its return-to-play plan.
But the wait continued as that decision is also tied into other crucial elements.
The league and the NHL Players’ Association still must finalize and ratify a return-to-play agreement and, with COVID-19 cases rising across most of the U.S., there is seemingly growing doubt among the players regarding the feasibility of resuming games.
The two sides also needed to work out a work-around to the fact that standard player contracts expire on June 30. Extensions are needed for the impending unrestricted and restricted free agents in order for them to participate in any resumption of play, or even the formal training camps that are scheduled to open on July 10.
And the NHL and the NHLPA are also trying to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Reconciling the massive loss of revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — the season was paused on March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining — within a salary-cap framework and a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue between the owners and players is, not shockingly, intricate work.
At one point, the NHL’s hub cities decision seemed to be Las Vegas and either of the remaining Canadian candidates, Toronto or Edmonton. But coronavirus cases are rising in Nevada and it now appears Edmonton and Toronto may both host games. Chicago also remains a candidate to host games. TSN reported on Tuesday that Los Angeles had been eliminated as a hub city candidate.
The return-to-play format includes sending 12 teams from each conference to a hub city. The top four teams would play a round-robin series for seeding in the 16-team playoffs while the remaining teams would participate in a best-of-five qualifying series to earn a postseason berth.
The Islanders, seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference, would face the 10th-seeded Panthers while the No. 11 Rangers would meet the sixth-seeded Hurricanes.
All four rounds of the playoffs would be best-of-seven series with the teams reseeded for the conference semifinals and finals.
But while the parameters of the plan have already been agreed upon, numerous details on health and safety protocols as well as player escrow toward the 50-50 hockey-related revenue split still must be finalized.
“I’m not quite 100% confident yet,” Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “I think the league is very adamant about working towards [a return]. I think once we get to the hub cities, everyone has to be confident [there] and that the league will have a good setup. So, once we get there, we’ll be good. But I think it’s a matter of getting there first. It looks like there’s some more things that need to be ironed out first.”
On Thursday, the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin released a statement arguing the players should not report for training camp until the NHL revamps its escrow system.
“For nearly two decades, the players have protected the owners’ income with escrow, including during this pandemic crisis, even as the owners’ equity continues to grow exponentially,’’ Panarin said. “It is time to fix the escrow. We as players cannot report to camp to resume play without already having an agreement in place.”
Under the current CBA and current escrow system, the players owe the owners hundreds of millions of dollars to satisfy the 50-50 agreement.
The full NHLPA membership will vote to ratify both a return-to-play agreement as well as a CBA extension, with only a majority needed for either to pass.
The current CBA expires on Sept. 15, 2022.