The 2019-20 NHL season paused on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic and all but two hockey leagues across the planet have canceled the remainder of their seasons. In this NoVa Caps “Point-Counterpoint” we debate: Should the NHL cancel their season?
The Case For Canceling The Remainder Of The Season (Bryan)
The Covid-19 Pandemic has unleashed devastating effects across the globe. To a far lesser extent, it has interrupted our lives in smaller, inconvenient ways. For sports fans it has meant going without live sports since mid-March. We’re left with a semi-satisfying mix of classic replays, over-hyped documentaries, and televised cornhole championships. We get by, but it’s not enough.
For National Hockey League fans, the wait has been particularly tough as we should be midway through the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hockey fans, accustomed to cheering and arguing their way through April and May, are left feeling as empty as the padlocked arenas. Unfortunately, even as NHL officials scramble to figure out a safe, fair way to resume play, a new realization becomes clearer each day: It’s time to cancel the 2019-2020 season.
To be clear, it is unlikely the season will be completely canceled. The dire economic impact of lost playoff revenue means the season, or at least some form of playoff tournament, will probably limp to a finish. But the reasons to permanently scrap the season are numerous.
Chief among them is the fact we still don’t know enough about this virus. While it’s true that there will always be risk, and much risk can be mitigated, is the NHL ready to endanger player safety on this large a scale? Almost every possible scenario for return floated so far has teams hunkered down together in lockdown at a small group of sites. Players living, practicing, playing and meeting in close quarters increases the risks.
Even if player and personnel safety could be guaranteed, the logistics of completing the season are complicated. Jumping straight into the playoffs, without concluding the regular season, is unfair to bubble teams and teams still fighting for seeding. Proposals for the playoff tournament itself, ranging from having fewer teams, having more teams, or having shorter series all drastically diverge from a typical Stanley Cup tournament. Some teams will benefit from players healing from injury. Other teams may be hurt by loss of momentum or players who haven’t stayed in shape.
While every team is placed in the same situation, it is likely some teams will survive the break better than others. One wonders if players living away from their families, locked down in faraway cities, playing a non-traditional tourney in front of few to zero fans is better than no conclusion at all.
Other scenarios for playoff completion preserve a normal Stanley Cup playoff but push the season so far into summer that next season would be delayed. This presents challenges of its own. Compressing a schedule which already often includes teams playing three games in four nights would be difficult. Playing a truncated schedule affects the integrity of the season and eventual champion. This season has already been disrupted; finishing this season at the expense of a normal 2020-2021 season simply means giving fans two bastardized seasons.
Bagging the season now (hopefully) allows for a relatively normal offseason. The draft, free agency, and training camp can proceed on schedule. Next season, play resumes with a fresh slate for all teams. Opportunities lost, yes, but perhaps safety and normalcy prevail.
Trashing the rest of the season would be tough for us Caps fans. As far as regular season storylines, Alex Ovechkin’s chance at 50 goals would obviously be gone, and his prospect of surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s record takes a hit. Playoff-wise, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom only have so many runs left in them; any opportunity lost to lift the Cup again is impactful. No conclusion to this season may mean we have seen the last of Braden Holtby in a red sweater. None of these thoughts bring joy.
Lord Stanley’s Cup is the most prestigious trophy in sports. It is not won in some sort of carnival game. It is earned through a grueling, four-round, two-month battle of attrition. The names inscribed on its rings are those of the last men standing after a spring of intense, physical games. The Cup demands to be raised and skated by the best. Playing a shortened tournament, a shortened regular season, or some ill-fitting combination of the two does not ensure the best will have earned the right to hoist. Doesn’t the Stanley Cup deserve better?
The Case For Finishing The Rest Of The Season (Harrison)
All teams have contracts with their television providers and that money goes to the league for the next year’s salary cap. The league also has a lucrative contract with NBC for the playoffs. Some say that the NHL could lose $1 billion if the season doesn’t resume but that loss can be cut in half if the Stanley Cup Playoffs occur with revenue from television contracts. TV exposure to teams grows the game to fans.
If the season does not resume, there is a risk the NHL salary cap for the 2020-21 season to drop significantly. Before the season paused, projections thought it would go up to somewhere between $84-88.2 million, up from the $81.5 million it was at this season. Some reports have indicated that next year’s salary cap will remain flat. It could have a big impact on teams like the St. Louis Blues, who already have the second-highest cap hit for next season ($7.47 million) and captain Alex Pietrangelo eligible for unrestricted free agency, likely not enough to keep him; and the Arizona Coyotes, who already have the highest ($5.19 million) with forward Taylor Hall set to hit the open market after the season. If the salary cap stays flat, it would have a huge impact on teams’ plans for the offseason.
Already 1082 Games (85%) Through Season
The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs were just 26 days away when the season paused, and the trade deadline had passed more than two weeks prior to the pause. It would be a tough pill to swallow for many teams and the NHL to have already been through so much of the season just to flush it all down the drain without a 2020 Stanley Cup Champion crowned. This is not like the MLB where none of their season had been played before pro sports stopped. The NHL was getting into the stretch run of the season, so it would be tough to drop everything and cancel the season with an asterisk next to it. The league is willing to play into October and has said that the ice conditions would be fine to play during the dog days of summer. If both of those things are true, the NHL should be in good position to finish off the season, even if they don’t restart until August.
It Can Be Done Safely
The 2019-20 regular season could be finished in four centralized spots (one per division). In that case, every team would be quarantined in their hotel. Testing for the coronavirus is increasingly available across the country. Unlike other sports, hockey players do not make direct physical contact with the puck (or ball as the case may be), and they wear gloves and limited face shields. United States President Donald Trump speculated that pro sports could start out without spectators and gradually work up to limited attendance and having arenas packed again.
NHL Willing To Start Next Season In December
The NHL has discussed delaying the start of next season by two months with the players, according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, and commissioner Gary Bettman has said previously that the league is exploring every option to resume the season. The league has told teams that this season could finish in the early fall and a lot of teams think that they need fans back in seats next season before opening the doors. Most teams can’t even imagine beginning next season without fans in seats. The players have already had two months without playing so they have had their fair share of rest and will get another month or two off prior to starting next season, so rest shouldn’t be an issue.
Resuming Season Can Be Done While Maintaining Integrity Of Stanley Cup
Some believe that if the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs are shortened to two or three rounds, winning the Stanley Cup would be “tainted” somehow. Even if 24 teams were in as previously reported and the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in late August, the season would still be on track to finish in October with four full rounds of playoff hockey. This Stanley Cup Champion will probably not feel as “real” as the previous Cups given the possible lack of fans, but with four full rounds and, who knows, maybe a fifth, it would certainly be just as big a test as teams face in a normal year.
So what do you think?
By Harrison Brown and Bryan Hailey