Prospect bubbles could be a solution if seasons are cancelled

Think of them like an extended prospect tournament.

The AHL Board of Governors met this week and have set a tentative start date for their season of February 5th. Earlier this week the OHL also announced a planned February 4th. The QMJHL began play in October, but was forced to halt play as multiple players on multiple teams began testing positive for COVID-19. The WHL has set a date of January 8th to begin play. The USHL is scheduled to start within the next couple weeks. NCAA hockey is still up in the air for when, or even if, it will start it’s season after having seen college football struggle the start to the fall season.

With two to three months before most of these leagues start up, along with the NHL (hopefully), there are still a lot of things that need to be worked out. Leagues need local government approval. The WHL, OHL, and AHL include teams from the United States and Canada meaning that they will need federal level permission from both sides to cross the border to play games.

There’s also the chance that some teams will just not be able to operate due to local government and pandemic situations or even because of finances. Many of these teams already operate on thin margins, skipping along that line between profitable and not. With many localities still limiting indoor gatherings to 50 or 100 people maximum, that’s just not enough in terms of ticket sales to keep a lot of these teams going.

For NHL teams, that means they need to consider all of these factors when it comes to player development. It would be bad for their prospects’ growth if they lost a whole year of competitive ice time. That would be detrimental to the growth of these players and could prevent, or delay, some from reaching their ceiling as players.

One idea I had the other day was the potential for NHL teams to band together to form Prospect Bubbles. With the same idea as the NHL Playoffs in August and September, teams could bring their prospects together into a bubble. Keep them in a hotel. Do testing. Organize practices and games. I don’t think this could be a four or five month plan, but two months is doable, especially with many of them being younger players that have yet to establish families. It’d be a sacrifice to be sure, but perhaps not as severe as it was for the many NHL players that left wives and young children to go into the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

A single team would not have enough players and prospects to really do this by themselves. If you were to bring two to four teams together, there’d be more than enough players to have games. It’s normal for before the start of training camp, for teams to get together for prospect tournaments where their prospects play full roster games against each other. The Tampa Bay Lightning have done this for the past few years with the Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Washington Capitals. The games are fun to watch, instructive of what players are capable of, and provide valuable experience for prospects of all skill levels to work with coaches and play against a comparable level of competition.

In the event that the CHL and AHL seasons were canceled or further postponed, what could their roster look like?

Forwards - Jack Finley, Gage Goncalves, Ryan Lohin, Jimmy Huntington, Otto Somppi, Ross Colton, Boris Katchouk, Gabriel Fortier, Jaydon Dureau, Taylor Raddysh, Declan McDonnell, Maxim Cajkovic, Invitee

Defensemen - Cal Foote, Dmitri Semykin, Alex Green, Jack Thompson, Quinn Schmiemann, Sean Day, Invitee

Goaltenders - Spencer Martin, Invitee, Invitee

From this list, I’ve left off players that are in the NCAA or are otherwise NCAA bound. Just like with the normal prospect tournaments, this would force the player to give up their NCAA eligibility to attend. I’ve also left off players that are playing in Europe, with the exception of Maxim Cajkovic who is currently on loan from his QMJHL team to the Bratislava Capitals. Otto Somppi is under contract to the Lightning, but has been loaned to the Pelicans of the Finnish Liiga. It’s unclear what the terms of his loan are, if the intention was for him to come back to Syracuse when the AHL season began, or play out the rest of his contract in Finland after failing to make as much progress as expected in the AHL.

I’ve also kept the players Under-25, with the exception of Spencer Martin. Normally with the prospect tournament, some of the players I listed wouldn’t be eligible because teams normally put a cap of “no more than one year professional” for the prospect tournaments. But since this is a special case, I stretched it out a bit, but wanted to still keep it in the realm of prospects that are still developing, rather than career minor league veterans.

There ends up being room for probably four or six invitees in here as well. The Lightning could pluck some players out of the CHL leagues that they are interested in and have not been drafted and give them a look. Even if they don’t sign the players, many players would jump at the chance to get professional coaching for a couple months, especially if it was all expenses paid by the NHL Club.

If the Lightning, Panthers, Predators, and Capitals were involved, the teams could target Brandon or Sunrise as their bubble location. The Lightning’s Brandon practice rink has undergone upgrades in recent years and has two full sized rinks plus locker rooms to use for practices and games. The Panthers’ practice facility is similarly situated with two full sized rinks and has served as a site for the four-team prospect tournaments in the past. Even though Florida is still a hotbed for the pandemic, the weather would be nicer and there would be more opportunity for socially distanced outdoor activities for the players to help keep them from going stir crazy during the duration of the bubble. The Predators have also hosted the tournament in the past and have a great practice facility as well.

It’s a long shot that anything like this happens. But it’s an idea that NHL teams should be thinking about and planning the possibility of in the event that prospect seasons start getting canceled en masse.