The NHL still plans to start its season Jan. 1, and it is considering a 48-to-60-game schedule, Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner, said in a phone interview Friday.
Teams will probably play home games at their own rinks, and hub cities – Edmonton and Toronto successfully hosted the 2019-20 postseason – have not been ruled out but are likely not going to be used, Daly said.
At the latest, the plan is to end the Stanley Cup playoffs by mid-July. The earlier they end, the more normal the 2021-22 season will be, Daly said.
Daly said the league was cognizant of coronavirus infections increasing at a rapid rate in North America and said the league had to remain flexible, “but as of right now, we’re still moving forward with the hope and the intention of starting on Jan. 1."
He added that if circumstances caused the season to be pushed back “a week or two weeks, so be it. We’re going to make sure that all the factors we want answered are answered" before an official schedule is released.
Because of the coronavirus, the divisions are expected to have new names and be realigned for this season to keep travel light, Daly said. The Flyers usually compete in the eight-team Metropolitan Division.
The Flyers will almost undoubtedly be in a division with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, and Washington Capitals — call it the Bus Division — and perhaps others. The number of divisions is still being discussed, Daly said. The NHL currently has a four-division setup, but that might grow for this season.
Travel restrictions between the United States and Canada will probably cause the league to form an all-Canadian division.
The league has not decided on how the schedule will work and whether Eastern and Western Conference teams will play each other in the regular season.
“A lot of those variables and parameters are going to be related entirely to what we end up, schedule-wise – meaning the length, how we play, how we build it,” said Daly, adding “the objective clearly is to cut down on travel and the [virus] risk associated with travel.”
Training camps are expected to open in mid-December, Daly said, adding that the coronavirus has caused plans to be fluid and that the league has to be “flexible” if changes need to be made.
Daly said each city will determine how many fans, if any, can attend games. Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, said there are ongoing conversations with the city about permitted capacities for home games and that a plan called “Back to Broad” was designed to reopen the building safely for fans.
If a coronavirus vaccine is approved and widely circulated, the number of fans permitted could change later in the season.
In an effort to limit travel, the schedule is expected to include several baseball-like series, during which a team hosts an opponent for, say, three games, Daly confirmed.
The league hopes to end the playoffs by July 15, which would be ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. Daly said the league needs to have openings on the schedule in case games have to be postponed because of a hit from the coronavirus.
Daly said it will be a “challenging year from a fan and economic perspective. We do want to get back on calendar.”
He was referring to starting the 2021-22 season in early October, like it does it normal times.
“We think that’s important to the business, and the future growth of the business,” Daly said.
To start the 2021-22 campaign in early October, this season would have to end late in the spring or early in the summer, Daly said. “In building a schedule for that window, I think we’re going to have to have some flexibility in terms of having to reschedule games because, as much as we’d like to have a perfect score, like we did in Toronto and Edmonton, the fact of the matter is, regardless of what model we decide embracing, I think we have to expect we’re going to have some COVID positives."
"And we’re going to have some isolation requirements of players who have been exposed to COVID positives, and that may result in games having to be postponed and be rescheduled.”