Completing regular season ‘may not be possible’

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday that completing the 2019-20 NHL regular season “may not be possible,” but one prominent player believes that would be unfair.

The NHL paused its season on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, with players ordered to remain quarantined in their homes until at least April 15. Bettman hoped to have more clarity on a season restart by the end of the month, but acknowledged for the first time that finishing the full 82-game regular season may not happen.

“The best thing, and the easiest thing, would be if at some point we could complete the regular season and then go into the playoffs as we normally do,” said Bettman in an interview on NBCSN. “We understand that that may not be possible and that’s why we’re considering every conceivable alternative to deal with whatever the eventuality is. Again, it doesn’t even pay to speculate because nobody in any of the sports knows enough now to make those profound decisions.”

Bettman said the NHL faces issues of fairness regarding “who gets in if we can’t complete the regular season” before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. NHL teams have between 11-14 games remaining in their regular seasons, with 189 games remaining when play was postponed on March 12. Determining how to seed the playoffs without the benefit of a completed regular season has been a point of debate inside the NHL and the NHLPA for weeks.

“We had seven teams on the bubble and all they think they would have had a chance. We have to deal with the lottery and order of selection in the draft,” he said.

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, whose Florida Panthers sit three points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, doesn’t believe it’s fair if the league jumps ahead to the postseason.

“I think it’s not really fair, because it’s still like 12 or 13 games … lots of games [left] and we’re right in the mix. We have the opportunity to be in there, and if they just cut it off I don’t think that it’s fair. From a sports standpoint, the season is 82 games and then the playoffs start. You just can’t cut off where we are and move right into the playoffs,” said Bobrovsky on a conference call.

The Panthers have played 69 games this season. Seven of their remaining 13 games were against teams outside the playoffs.

“From the economy standpoint, it’s a different situation,” said Bobrovsky, “but from a sports standpoint, I don’t think it’s fair.”

Other players on teams outside the playoff picture had echoed this. “I think it’s fair to start where we left off here. It would be good for the playoffs too, to get those games going again. It would benefit all of us,” said defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes, who are four points out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with 12 games left to play.

Whatever the format, the NHL’s return from its season pause faces enormous obstacles that include the health and safety of those involved; the location of games, as the NHL has discussed the potential of holding playoff rounds in “neutral site” arenas to better control the environment; and the local and federal restrictions on travel, shelter in place and essential businesses that Bettman anticipates won’t be consistent from region to region – or in the NHL’s case, nation to nation – if and when the league restarts.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options. We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light – and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can,” he said. “We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is, because we have next season to focus on as well and the health of the countries.”

Bettman confirmed that the NHL is looking into playing games into the summer, and downplayed the idea that maintaining NHL-caliber ice to be an issue because of the league’s modern and air-conditioned facilities.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report

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