24-team playoff? Inside NHL’s new, complicated restart vision

We can tell you that while it is true that the NHL has explored the possibility of completing the 2019-20 season in a remote location such as Manchester, N.H., Sixth Avenue has determined that the infrastructure in such a locale would be insufficient to support such a massive endeavor. Rather, Slap Shots has learned that …

We can tell you that while it is true that the NHL has explored the possibility of completing the 2019-20 season in a remote location such as Manchester, N.H., Sixth Avenue has determined that the infrastructure in such a locale would be insufficient to support such a massive endeavor.

Rather, Slap Shots has learned that the league is now focused on playing in an NHL city (perhaps more than one) that has been spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, whose curve tracks positively, and is located within a state whose social distancing regulations would be relaxed by the time the first puck is ready to be dropped.

The effort faces the same massive obstacles that have been catalogued repeatedly over the past few weeks that apply to every sport, not just hockey. The athletes and team support staffs, etc., would essentially have to be segregated from society for the duration of their respective seasons while tested regularly for COVID-19. Of course, the games would be played without fans.

We have been told from sources on both sides of the aisle that NHL teams continue to press for resumption and completion of the regular season that would precede a traditional Stanley Cup playoff tournament. That, though, is not going to happen. I understand that teams completely out of contention don’t want to owe their local television partners give-backs or credits, but sorry about that.

The Red Wings, Senators, Kings, Devils, et al, are not reconvening — an arduous enough task in itself given the myriad travel restrictions across the world — in order to be isolated for a three-week training camp and up to 13 completely meaningless games apiece. That is ridiculous. We are living in a surreal environment, but let’s be somewhat realistic here, too.

Yes, guys want to play, and not only because of escrow implications. But we can authoritatively tell you there isn’t anything close to unanimity within the Players’ Association on the matter of players leaving their families behind for what would be up to a couple of months for those on teams advancing deep into the playoffs.

Slap Shots has learned that union leadership told the players on a Thursday conference call that a summer resumption would generate approximately $350 million in revenue from existing television and sponsorship contracts. That number is believed based on a 24-team playoff format that would be preceded by two or three exhibition games per team.

The NHL has said that resumption could generate between $450 million and $500 million, but that range is believed based on completing the full schedule. Both sides agree that $1 billion in hockey-related revenue will be lost if there is no further play this year.

The league’s focus has been devoted all but entirely on this season. But the more massive issues lay ahead. The hard cap/escrow system and current CBA under which the NHL operates will not be sustainable for this consortium — which generates between 40-50 percent of its revenue from gate receipts, concessions, parking, etc. The NHL keeps talking about the necessity of having a full 2020-21 season, but what does that even mean under the most likely scenario of most (if not all) NHL cities still barred from holding events with mass gatherings when the fall rolls around?

There have been talks between the NHL and PA about the possibility of extending the CBA that is currently set to expire following 2021-22. The players were told Thursday about a possible plan to stabilize the cap over the next three seasons at the current $81.5 million in order to ease their escrow burden.

In my opinion, the PA should not be negotiating a long-term labor agreement under these adverse conditions. The league is obviously fine with its 50-50 split enforced by escrow withholdings that could be as high as 60 percent next year alone (not including carryover escrow from this season), but this hard-cap system linked to HRR is not a viable governing doctrine under these circumstances.

Seventeen teams were within $1 million of the cap with another five clubs within $3 million of this year’s $81.5 million when the season stopped. You tell me how teams will be able to operate under a flat cap for the next three years in a system that features arbitration. Though a month ago I suggested amnesty buyouts would be required, the PA isn’t likely to be wildly supportive of a mechanism, which could throw an additional 30-60 players a year onto the free-agent market in a depressed economy.

There is a need for a transition agreement under which the cap and HRR are somehow delinked that provides for a cap on escrow. Perhaps the PA would agree to suspend arbitration and reduce the max term of a contract from eight years to five. Regardless, business as was usual will not be sustainable for this hard-cap league.

Here’s one: Sixth Avenue could certainly help matters by including Seattle’s $650 million expansion fee in HRR in a one-time exception that the commissioner could call a stimulus package. At least 25 million of our neighbors have lost jobs during the pandemic — with millions more facing financial distress, if not ruin — so no one is suggesting you should have sympathy for pro athletes who face significant cuts in take-home pay. But this should be a shared burden between the players and the owners.

The league’s focus is trained on this summer and all of the enormous obstacles that stand in the way or a restart. But a greater vision is required for next season and the ones that hopefully will follow. Both sides should get to work on that as soon as possible. Maybe they can meet in Manchester, N.H.

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