Why the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season, and what comes next


On Thursday, the NHL decided to “pause” the 2019-20 season, with hopes to resume play at some point in the future. The decision comes after hockey leagues in other countries — as well as other sports leagues in North America — made the call to suspend or outright cancel the remainder of their seasons due to the coronavirus.

What does all of this mean, in both the short and long term? We’re here to answer all of the biggest questions on hockey fans’ minds in the wake of the decision, and will continue to update this story as we learn more.

What has the NHL decided to do regarding the coronavirus outbreak?

Greg Wyshynski: The NHL on Thursday “paused” its regular season — not postponed nor suspended, but “paused” — after consulting with medical experts and conferring with its Board of Governors. “The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible developments without taking premature or unnecessary measures. However, following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus — and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

How did the league get to this point?

Wyshynski: As the coronavirus caused postponements and cancelations overseas, the NHL’s first reaction was to close the dressing rooms to the media at practice and after games. Player availability was held in hallways or press conference rooms, with reporters keeping a distance of at least six feet away. Then the league and its teams restricted travel for personnel, including scouts. As more cities and regions recommended against or restricted mass gatherings, the NHL was preparing to play “ghost games” inside of empty home arenas beginning as early as Thursday night. But then the season was paused instead.

How many NHL cities have banned mass gatherings?

Emily Kaplan: The NHL was prepared to play games in San Jose, California and Columbus, Ohio without spectators, per orders from local governments. The Sharks were following orders from the county of Santa Clara’s public health department which issued an order to limit public and private mass gatherings. The Blue Jackets initially said they would still allow fans to attend games, but changed course when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he would issue an order to ban spectators. California also recommended a statewide limit on large gatherings through at least the remainder of March, which could have affected the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.

What other leagues/events in the hockey world have canceled or suspended play, or made another precaution?

Kaplan: USA Hockey announced Thursday that all championships on a local level have been canceled. The IIHF women’s world championships, which were supposed to begin in late March in Nova Scotia, were canceled, however the IIHF men’s world championships, scheduled to take place in May in Switzerland, are still on for now. According to TSN, the men’s under-18 tournament was also canceled. The NWHL postponed the Isobel Cup Final, scheduled for March 13 in Boston. The USHL suspended its season, and the AHL is expected to follow the NHL’s suit and pause their season as well. Several hockey leagues in Europe — including in Switzerland and Germany — have already canceled their playoffs. Swiss League director Denis Vaucher said in a statement that the league “has a responsibility to protect our players, club members and their health, and that is now a top priority.” The Swedish league postponed postseason play until at least March 24. The KHL is continuing on with its playoffs, however the March 12 game between Spartak and Dynamo was played behind closed doors, per a local government decree.

Could the playoffs be canceled too? Postponed?

Wyshynski: Everything is on the table right now. One NHL source tells ESPN that their team’s physician doesn’t believe the spread of coronavirus will subside until June. If the NHL is off the ice for that long, the postseason’s fate has to hang in the balance, even as arena availability for July is being explored. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear: “Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup.”

From a functional standpoint, how could the playoffs be seeded if the regular season is done?

Wyshynski: A source on the players’ side believes a “best case” scenario would be a two- to three-week pause to the season; the continuation of the regular season for a few more games, though less than 82; and then a truncated playoffs with shorter opening series. But if the NHL wanted to jump right into the playoffs, the only equitable way would be through using points percentage rather than point totals, as teams have played an unequal number of games (between 69-71). If the playoffs start where the regular season was paused, you’d end up with the following series:

Eastern Conference:

A1 Boston Bruins (.714 points percentage) vs. WC2 New York Islanders (.588)
A2 Tampa Bay Lightning (.657) vs. A3 Toronto Maple Leafs (.579)
M1 Washington Capitals (.652) vs. WC1 Carolina Hurricanes (.596)
M2 Philadelphia Flyers (.645) vs. M3 Pittsburgh Penguins (.623)

Western Conference:

C1 St. Louis Blues (.662) vs. WC2 Calgary Flames (.564)
C2 Colorado Avalanche (.657) vs. C3 Dallas Stars (.594)
P1 Vegas Golden Knights (.606) vs. WC1 Nashville Predators (.565)
P2 Edmonton Oilers (.585) vs. P3 Vancouver Canucks (.565)

The Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets, who are currently in wild-card seeds via total points, would not make the playoff cut.

Would they name a champion without the playoffs?

Wyshynski: Not if history is any indication. Since the NHL’s first season of operation in 1917, the Stanley Cup has been awarded via a playoff series, although the formats have changed dramatically over the years. The only time the NHL didn’t have a Stanley Cup winner in a season was in the 1919 Stanley Cup Final, which was cancelled after five games due to an outbreak of Spanish flu. Eventually, that series was honored with a Stanley Cup etching that read “1919/Montreal Canadiens/Seattle Metropolitans/Series Not Completed.” If there aren’t playoffs in the 2019-20 season and the NHL doesn’t name a champion, that would follow the template set by other pro hockey leagues in 2020 such as Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany, which cancelled its postseason and declared “there will be no German hockey champion crowned this year.”

Are any teams currently isolating themselves?

Kaplan: Not that we know of at this moment. Teams were advised to not travel, or hold meetings or practices for now. There are no known cases of COVID-19 among NHL players or staff members.

How many teams could have been touched by the NBA teams involved?

Kaplan: Two players on the Utah JazzRudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — have tested positive for COVID-19. Since March 4, Gobert and the Utah Jazz played at Madison Square Garden in New York, TD Garden in Boston and Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, which all host NHL teams as well. The Jazz also faced the Toronto Raptors, who share a home with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Typically, the visiting basketball teams and visiting hockey teams have separate locker rooms in arenas. However considering how highly communicable the disease is, the overlap is alarming.

What steps are being made to test players and team staff?

Wyshynski: Deputy commissioner Bill Daly tells ESPN that COVID-19 testing will be handled by the teams, rather than the league. “Testing kits are controlled by local health, and each state is allocated different amounts based on population and experience. At this point, the need for testing is greater than the supply of tests. That will start to change as manufacturers are ramping up production,” he said.

What happens with revenues if the season ends being canceled?

Wyshynski: Hockey-related revenue (HRR) is projected at $5 billion. The playoffs make up roughly $250 million of HRR. The players’ share is $125 million of that playoff revenue, due to the 50/50 split between players and owners. To ensure that split, there’s a thing called escrow in the NHL where a portion of the players’ salaries are kept in reserve in case there’s an imbalance between what the players earn vs. the owners. The players and owners determine the final HRR number, and they adjust accordingly. This season, 14% of a players’ salary was withheld in escrow.

The last 12 games of the regular season, approximately, represent another $100 million in revenue. So if the rest of the regular season and playoffs were wiped out, the overall hockey-related revenue could fall to $4.6 billion. The players’ share would be reduced by $200 million. What this adds up to is another 20% potentially being taken off the face value of contracts.

Where would that money come from to bridge that new revenue gap if the season is cancelled? There’s a possibility that the NHL simply deposits player paychecks — which arrive on the 15th and 30th of each month — directly into escrow beginning now. Or it could result in a significant increase in escrow on next season’s paychecks to make up for this season’s revenue gap after escrow is paid to the owners, which is a provision in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Will this impact the salary cap projection?

Kaplan: At the NHL’s general manager meetings in March, the league said the salary cap was projected to be between $84 million and $88.2 million for the 2020-21 season, an uptick from the current cap of $81.5 million The exact figure will be negotiated with the NHL Players’ Association. The cap is calculated on a percentage of hockey-related revenue for the previous season, and the healthy increase indicated that the NHL was steadily growing as it prepares to welcome its 32nd team, Seattle, for the 2021-22 season.

Should the NHL miss out on revenue this spring — for the final three-plus weeks of the regular season, and especially in the playoffs — while still paying its players, expect the cap to dip. To compensate for that, however, it’s possible that the NHL and NHLPA will create an “artificial cap,” meaning it is not exactly created off of this season’s HRR. That would help prevent some teams from entering a serious salary cap squeeze this summer.

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