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The latest CDC recommendation means the NHL is unlikely to return until May

The CDC has recommended the cancellation and postponement of events consisting of more than 50 people throughout the United States, and that almost certainly means the NHL won't be back on the ice until mid-May at the earliest.

As sanctions and bans continue to be put in place by governments in order to slow the spread and control the outbreak of the coronavirus across the globe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has recommended the cancellation or postponement of all large events and mass gatherings for the next eight weeks.

“Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travellers who attend these events and introduce the virus to new communities,” read the CDC’s guidance, which was updated Sunday evening. “Examples of large events and mass gatherings include conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies. These events can be planned not only by organizations and communities but also by individuals.

“Therefore, CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”

The CDC’s announcement comes three days after the NHL’s decision to pause its season, which itself came in the wake of the NBA’s announcement that it would suspend its campaign upon learning that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. However, the CDC’s recommendation could provide the first true timeline for an earliest possible return to action for the NHL. An eight-week postponement would see the NHL back on the ice no earlier than Sunday, May 10.

Though the NHL had not announced any potential timeline for return prior to the CDC’s recommendation, a rough timeline seemed to be in the range of 30 days. That assumption was made based on NBA commissioner Adam Silver's statement to fans in which he said he believed that 30 days was the earliest possible return date for the pro basketball circuit.

Even if the NHL is able to return at the end of the eight-week period outlined by the CDC, however, it is now almost certain that the league will be forced to alter its schedule. At 30 days, there was potential, albeit slim, for the league to finish the regular season calendar, which had 24 days remaining, and still wrap up the post-season by mid-July. But pushing the start of the resumed season back to mid-May makes that far less likely.

Consider that if the league desired to play every regular season contest that was left on the schedule at the time of postponement and an entire post-season of seven-game series, a return in as few as eight weeks pushes the completion of the 2019-20 campaign into mid-August. That's not particularly feasible given it would cause a ripple effect that would impact off-season events such as free agency and the draft, not to mention limit the off-season for a handful of teams to only several weeks presuming the league desired to start the 2020-21 preseason on time.

That means if we see the NHL again this season – and the threat of a cancelled campaign seems to be rising by the day – it is not only possible, but probable that the league returns with an altered schedule and/or post-season. That could mean playing another handful of regular season tilts to get every team on level footing, adjusting the standings based on points percentage or expanding the playoff format. Prior to cancelling its season, Sweden's top-tier league, the SHL, had planned to move forward with its post-season by reducing each series to five games instead of the traditional seven. That remains an option for the NHL, and it's safe to say the league will have to consider any and all suggestions if it is going to attempt to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup.

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