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Lightning Round: NHL exploring temporary bubbles and realignment for 2020-21

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And an update on hockey start timelines across North America.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six
EDMONTON, ALBERTA - SEPTEMBER 28: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Stanley Cup to captain Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after Game Six of the NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place on September 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL Board of Governors are set to meet on Thursday, but before the meeting Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the media and sent out a memo regarding planning for the 2020-21 NHL season. The NHL, their teams, and the players are set to bash heads and come up with another plan for the season after doing it once already for the 2019-20 playoff bubble.

The last one was a months long, labored negotiation, which is different than what this needs to be considering the league is on a really tight timeline this time. So, as Elliotte Friedman put it in his blog, “Get ready for an intense couple of weeks.”

Bettman’s on-again, off-again plan

In his press conference, Bettman spoke about having the players compete in a high-intensity set of games for about two weeks, get tested, go home to their families for a week, and then go out and do it again for the length of the season.

“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days,” Commissioner Bettman said in a virtual panel discussion during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit. “You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need.

“It’s not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that’s one of the things that we’re talking about.”

In the bubble, teams could play about seven games every 12 days, with one back-to-back. This sounds like the plan again. I’m interested to know what the ratings were for afternoon games in the bubble (relative to the shockingly low numbers the NHL pulled, even for them). If it’s not financially viable — especially if letting fans in the host arena means having people coming in and out between games — it might be more reasonable to have fewer games a day with fewer teams and more bubbles spread around North America. That’s just my speculation.

The Travel Ban

Canada is still keeping their border closed from the US and it doesn’t look like it’s going to open for NHL players to move across it. This issue was repeated by Bettman, with the added complication being States having different quarantining rules in order to travel between themselves. It’s unclear what the new administration is going to do, like creating a standardized system of quarantine for travel or leaving it to the States. Bettman has Trump’s phone number so maybe he’ll be able to ask some questions in the meantime.

“Obviously, we’re not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play. And while crossing the U.S.-Canadian border is an issue, we’re also seeing within the United States limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states. It’s again part of having to be flexible.” ...

Temporary Realignment

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense.

It sounds more and more obvious that the NHL is going to need to create a Canadian Division and put the rest of the NHL in smaller bubbles that are hyper-local with respect to proximity and COVID-19 situations.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, that could mean a season playing the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, and Nashville Predators. That’s five teams with a possible intermingling with the teams in the midwest and northeast to increase variety.

Here is my guess to the rest of the league:

Southeast: TBL, FLA, CAR, DAL, NSH
Northeast: BUF, NYR, NYI, NJ, BOS
Metro: PHI, PIT, WSH, CBJ
Midwest: DET, CHI, STL, MIN, COL
Pacific: SJS, ANA, LAK, ARI, VGK
Canada: VAN, CGY, EDM, WPG, TOR, OTT, MTL

It’s not perfect. Detroit ends up switching into a division with Western Conference teams, Tampa Bay and Florida are in this weird mix with the southern States, and the Metro is down to four teams, but it’s a localized framework that the league can build on that allows teams to still play out of the division on occasion.

Bettman’s Analysis of the Bubble Ratings

Contrary to many beliefs, the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t tank sports ratings. People don’t like to watch sports in the summer (even I struggled to watch more games than I had to, and I’m a hockey blogger).

“TV ratings were down, as they were across sports. Commissioner Bettman pointed to two factors:

“One, fans in the stands give games energy that comes through on television, and some of that was missed.

“Two, research showed that that while avid fans would watch the NHL at any time, casual fans were less inclined to watch in the summer.”

So it looks like the NHL is going to try and get rid of the fake crowd noise as quickly as possible, get fans (and their precious ticket revenue) in, and play games closer to prime time. No more 2:00 p.m. games, please.

What Other Leagues Are Doing

NBA:

December 22nd start date, right in time for Christmas Day.

World Juniors:

December 25th to January 5th in Edmonton. The NHL won’t want to step on these toes, especially because of its draw in Canada. Splitting those eyes are counterproductive. Perhaps training camp in the new year?

ECHL:

December 11th for teams choosing to participate in the first opening of the season. Teams like the Newfoundland Growlers have yet to opt in (aka opted out).

NCAA:

Games start this Friday, November 13th.

QMJHL:

The QMJHL is underway...and it is not going well. Teams have gotten at most 12 games under their best despite starting in October. Most teams have had to quarantine and/or postpone games as their areas become redzones. Now, seven set to enter a bubble for 10 days next week to play 21 games amongst each other.

WHL:

The WHL has yet to announce start dates. The WHL plans to start on January 8th.

OHL

The OHL has pushed their start date to February 4th. Ontario is like Quebec in that both have a high number of cases right now.


Lightning Links

Here’s a sneak preview of the “Reverse Retro” jerseys being produced by Adidas. It looks like the Lightning have an 04 throwback on the horizon.

The Orlando Solar Bears made a pair of transactions yesterday. One signing and a trade.