The Sabres might not see the ice for the 2020-21 season until December, which appears to be the likely target date for training camp if the Stanley Cup is not awarded until early October. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman even floated a trial balloon that next season could start with the Winter Classic, the Jan. 1 game between St. Louis and Minnesota outdoors at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Bettman never says anything off the cuff so that’s clearly what he’s thinking might happen. Assuming that’s the case, is that going to be a new normal for the NHL? A Jan. 1 start, which would still have the Cup final pushing toward August, seems extreme. But the coronavirus pandemic is going to force the league’s calendar to get moved into different places, and it might be better for the league in the long term.
I have long been a proponent of an earlier start to the season, cutting down the preseason to open the regular schedule around Sept. 20 so that the Cup final is wrapped up by Memorial Day. This entire situation has given me pause – pun intended – to rethink that position.
My feeling now is that the NFL and college football, especially in SEC country, have become immovable behemoths and it’s in the best interest of the NHL (and the NBA) to try to avoid going head-to-head with football for as long as possible.
I would not be a proponent of an annual Jan. 1 start to the NHL season, but I probably wouldn’t start much before Nov. 15 either. You could essentially miss going head-to-head with the entire regular season of college football as well as the World Series and anywhere from nine to 11 weeks of the NFL season. And if you push the start until around Dec. 1, you’d miss even more football.
The later you start, of course, the later you finish. And while it’s expected there will be no All-Star Game or bye week in the 2020-21 season, you have to assume those will return at some point. The Cup final now regularly finishes in mid-June, with Game 7 last year in Boston coming on June 12.
It’s reasonable to think the NHL is willing to consider going well into July in the future, especially when its American television rights deal is up after next season. A split package between NBC and ESPN, much like the NBA does with ABC and several cable networks, would make sense, and ESPN could get some key games in slower months like June and July.
In the past, concerns have been raised about making ice during warm summer months. It’s clear the league no longer has those worries, given how it does its own icemaking for its outdoor games and brings supplementary equipment to arenas hosting later-round games and the Stanley Cup final. There have been few complaints about ice in recent Cup finals, including the 2018 games in Las Vegas that saw outside temperatures rise to more than 100 degrees.
Players from teams that go deep into the playoffs might not like the loss of June and July as vacation time, and Canadian media members who pile to their cottages at the stroke of July 2 might have similar issues. But one issue now is how do you return the schedule to an early October start? With seasons going into summer, you’d have to substantially cut short an offseason or cut short a regular season – no option for owners – to get the playoffs to their standard April-June run.
NHL games in October are much like baseball games in late March or early April: You get a packed house on opening night and maybe a good crowd on your first weekend game, and then have crickets in many arenas until Thanksgiving.
A later start to the schedule makes sense and this situation might be the impetus for the NHL to move on it. Assuming health issues allow, it will be interesting to see how things go here in July and August as the players get back on the ice.
Tage thoughts on Blues’ anniversary
It was a year ago Friday when the St. Louis Blues won the first Stanley Cup in their 52-year history with their 4-1 victory in Game 7 over the Boston Bruins. Ryan O’Reilly won the Conn Smythe Trophy, thus cementing Jason Botterill in infamy as the first GM in history to trade the next season’s Smythe winner.
Botterill is deeper on the clock after another nonplayoff season and the O’Reilly trade looms as his career epitaph unless he finds a No. 2 center this offseason or highly regarded Dylan Cozens quickly develops into one. And Botterill also has to hope that University of Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnson, taken with the No. 31 overall pick from the O’Reilly trade, becomes a key contributor.
Still, one of my most vivid memories of the postgame celebration on the TD Garden ice was the chat a few of us had with Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong. Just a few minutes after his team won the Cup, Armstrong might have been doing Botterill a solid when he looked at me and said, “I think it’s a good deal for Buffalo, too. They got a great player in Tage Thompson. They got a first-round pick. It’s going to work out well for them.”
So far, of course, it hasn’t. But that doesn’t mean it won’t. Maybe Johnson becomes a key contributor. Thompson had 14 goals in 27 games in Rochester the last two seasons counting the 2019 Calder Cup playoffs, so his season-ending shoulder injury in November with the Sabres was a real disappointment. He’ll still be only 23 when next season starts. Botterill really needs a breakthrough from him in 2021.
Fly away, Pilut
Maybe Lawrence Pilut will return someday. Maybe he’ll never have an NHL career. We’ll find out. But for now, I’m glad he’s gone.
Pilut’s clear take-the-money-and-run decision to sign a two-year deal in the KHL was foolish. If he didn’t like what the Sabres were selling him, understandable to a point because of his lack of opportunity, he could have pushed for a trade. The KHL shouldn’t be anybody’s dream.
That said, the amount of consternation about Pilut’s departure from the analytics community and on social media far exceeded reasonable discussion. For the last two years, Pilut has been the internet’s latest version of Mark Pysyk. As the party line goes, there’s greatness in the making and the team refuses to see it.
At least Pysyk was a first-round draft choice and has played 417 NHL games, including regular duty the last four years in Florida. Pilut earned All-Star nods in the AHL but hasn’t shown much of anything in practice or games in Buffalo.
Yes, Pilut should have gotten more chances on the ice ahead of Zach Bogosian. But players making $6 million in salary and carrying a $5.1 million cap hit don’t sit in the press box when they’re healthy. That’s the stark bottom line, especially when you consider what we’ve learned about the red ink at Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
If you don’t think that’s a factor in professional sports, circa 2020, I suggest you remove your nose from your heat maps and spreadsheets and watch the game a little more. Pilut needed to be exceptional to push the needle in his favor and instead was ordinary.
It’s a bad look for the Sabres to be caught off-guard by his quick move to the KHL and not get anything for him in a trade. But all this chatter for months that the team has frittered away a prime prospect – who was never even drafted – is simply ridiculous. With this team’s struggles the last two years, if Pilut was so outstanding he would have earned a regular spot on the blue line. He didn’t. Not even close.
Buyouts/qualifying offers ahead?
It’s already been widely reported that the Sabres are free to make trades with the other six teams out of the playoffs, but Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman dropped this nugget Thursday: The league is pondering whether to let those teams offer buyouts and give qualifying offers to their restricted free agents during their normal windows for those activities later this month.
It’s an interesting idea to help the Sidelined Seven get a head start on their long offseasons. Doesn’t seem all that fair to them to force them to wait until October after the Stanley Cup is awarded to get to some of this business.
While Botterill hates buyouts and is unlikely to use one, he has lots of decisions to make about his restricted free agents and their qualifying offers and can get some of that work out of the way if he gets the go-ahead.
Legendary baseball scribe Jayson Stark of MLB Network and The Athletic, referring to how Bettman and current NHLPA head and former MLBPA head Donald Fehr have fostered a spirit of cooperation in hockey to get back to games: “I never thought I’d be pointing to the NHL as a model for anything baseball should aspire to. But I’m there. That is how it’s done. At times like this, neither side should be trying to win or lose, no matter how ugly their relationship or their history.
“These are the times to shove all of that aside and solve those common problems – because the solutions benefit everyone. But the dysfunction? That just stains everyone.”
Stark was presented with the Spink Award last summer in Cooperstown, the highest honor in the game for a baseball writer. He’s a legend in his sport. His sport would do well to listen to him now. The NHL, NBA and MLS have their return-to-play plans in gear and the NFL seems full steam ahead. Baseball is getting left behind.
Around the boards
• Ballots were sent out by the NHL last week for its end-of-season awards and must be returned by Monday at 5. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng trophies to honor the league’s MVP, top defenseman, top rookie, top defensive forward and most gentlemanly player, respectively. The Jack Adams Award for coach of the year is selected by NHL broadcasters. The Vezina Trophy for top goaltender is voted on by the league’s general managers.
The PHWA will hold a separate vote this week for its award, the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey. Each team has a nominee; the Sabres’ representative announced Tuesday was forward Curtis Lazar.
PHWA members are prohibited from revealing their votes until the winners are announced. All votes will be revealed at that time. The annual NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas was wiped out by the pandemic and the league has yet to reveal its plans for handing out awards for this season.
• Most everyone you talk to is assuming Las Vegas is going to be one of the NHL’s hub cities for the resumption of play, largely on the basis of its vast network of hotels in close proximity to T-Mobile Arena. While the league wants to go into Canada, it seems a little strange to think it would choose Edmonton and have both hubs in the West, creating issues for Eastern TV viewers. The entire Canadian border/quarantine situation also works against Toronto and you continue to hear Columbus and Pittsburgh as cities inching ahead in the race for the other hub.
Another possibility floating around is that the teams will cross hubs, meaning the Western Conference group would play in the Eastern hub and the East teams would head to Vegas. Remember, no fans are expected at these games and there’s a feeling that allowing one team in each hub to be at home would be an unfair advantage.
• Players still need clarity on when family members might be allowed into their quarantine “bubbles” as play resumes. During his end-of-season conference call, Sabres veteran Kyle Okposo said he would not have been pleased about leaving his wife and three children under age 7 for weeks at a time had Buffalo qualified.
Columbus captain Nick Foligno, who has two young children that have endured serious illnesses, echoed similar sentiments on a recent conference call when he said, “If somebody tells me I can’t see my family, there’s going to be a fight.”
• Former Sabres draft pick Brandon Hagel was named MVP and Rookie of the Year by the Rockford IceHogs, Chicago’s AHL affiliate. Hagel had 19 goals and 31 points in 59 games for Rockford and also made his NHL debut for Chicago on March 11 against San Jose, the Hawks’ final game before the season was paused.
The 21-year-old left winger was Buffalo’s sixth-round draft pick in 2016 out of Red Deer in the Western Hockey League. A product of Tim Murray’s final draft as GM, Hagel was one of three players Botterill gave up rights to and didn’t re-sign in 2018.
St. Joe’s product Dennis Gilbert won Rockford’s “Heavy Hitter” award. Gilbert played 30 games at Rockford and 21 in Chicago, scoring his first NHL goal Dec. 27 against the New York Islanders.