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Talk of playoffs and June draft provide hope, but how realistic is it?

There have been some interesting ideas that have been floated about playing out the remainder of the 2019-20 season and the 2020 NHL draft. They might be pie-in-the-sky notions at the moment, but they're providing hope to hockey-starved fans. Just don't get your hopes too high.
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At a time when the rest of the world has come to an almost complete stop, it seems as though things are starting to move when it comes to the NHL. In the past 24 hours, there has been speculation that the league is considering returning to play to finish the season in July and still holding a virtual draft in June. But before you start mapping out a summer of television viewing that includes a June draft followed by two months of Stanley Cup playoffs, consider that these ideas are only being discussed at the moment and are nowhere near to coming to fruition. As much as we’d love to see hockey back after months without it, there are still far too many variables to make any definite declarations.

Which means it’s all well and good that Florida Panthers CEO and president Matthew Caldwell said that the NHL is considering returning in July at four or five neutral sites with limited or no fans, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. According to the report, Caldwell has said, “the plan is not finalized.” Not only has it not been finalized, it hasn’t gone anywhere beyond the preliminary discussion stages. The same goes with holding the draft in June. These are both ideas that have been floated in broad discussions. And like all ideas of that nature, one or both may stick, or they could very well fall by the wayside.

“There’s nothing happening,” said one NHL governor who requested anonymity. “We don’t have enough information to make any plans. What (Caldwell) was saying could be an option, but it’s as much an option as anything.”

Caldwell’s comments were made Wednesday morning when he was part of a panel of business leaders that addressed the Re-Open Florida’s Industry Working Group. Here’s exactly what Caldwell said: “At least for the NHL, we’re trying to target sometime in July when we feel that players are safe and we have enough testing and we have enough ways to get back on the ice, for us it’s probably going to be contained to playing at four or five neutral sites. That’s all being discussed right now. My guess is that we would start with either limited fans or empty arenas. So just the teams and the associated staffs.”

So it’s nowhere near a proclamation that the league will be back, but it’s something to provide hope during dark times. The roadmap U.S. president Donald Trump gave to governors to reopen their economies was a three-phase process and it stands to reason that the NHL might be able to move to areas who have cleared Phase II, which would limit gatherings to no more than 50 people, “unless precautionary measures are taken.” Ontario premier Doug Ford has repeatedly said he will follow the advice of the province’s chief medical officer before resuming any sort of normalcy.

One governor said that if the league were to do this, the matchups might be more geographical than according to division. To be sure, they would be held in places where the curve has flattened and COVID-19 is relatively under control. So let’s say one city holding games in Raleigh, N.C. and another is Minnesota. Well, if the Nashville Predators are part of the picture, it would make much more sense for them to play in Raleigh rather than Minnesota, particularly if teams are having to bus their players, even though they occupy the same division as the Wild. And what would the league do about injuries? What if a player is injured badly enough to be hospitalized? Would teams want their players recovering in places where COVID-19 might be an issue.

So much of this is a race to fill the void that sports fans have felt since every sport shut down more than a month ago. If the NHL were the first to come back, some in the game have opined, it would give the league an enormous advantage in attracting sponsorship dollars and give it the spotlight at a time of the year when there will not be as much competition. And while it might be seen as myopic and tone deaf to think that way when thousands of people are dying, it can also provide a good segment of the population an outlet. Sports leagues have played through world wars. Which is why trying to hold the Stanley Cup playoffs this summer makes a lot of sense.

But if the NHL is simply trying to create some buzz with the prospect of holding the draft in June, prior to either playing out or cancelling the season, that’s not a good enough reason to do it. To be sure, the league would have to know whether or not it is going to return by the time it holds the draft. To do anything otherwise would play even more havoc with things such as the draft lottery and conditional picks. Could you imagine a team winning the draft lottery, then getting into the playoffs under an expanded format, then running the table and winning the Stanley Cup?

As much as we want all these things to happen, it’s still too early to determine whether or not the league is going to be able to pull it off. Right now they seem pie-in-the-sky ideas. But that’s the thing about pie-in-the-sky ideas. Sometimes they come to fruition.

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