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Inside the NHL’s Return to Play Protocol and New CBA

We take a deep dive into the new agreements that will govern both the NHL’s 2020 playoffs and the next five seasons.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Move over, 1995 Devils. Sit down, 2012 Kings. Sorry, 2019 Blue Jackets. There’s a new biggest upset in NHL history.

The league and the NHLPA managed to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement without requiring a work stoppage.

Of course, it required a worldwide pandemic to force the hand of the two parties, but hey, let’s celebrate what we can, because there sure isn’t much else to feel good about these days.

With the players needing to be involved at every step of the NHL’s return to play protocol, it just made sense that with the CBA coming up for renewal, and the economics of sports turned upside down for the foreseeable future, the two could be intertwined. With every new CBA comes a set of changes that will impact the league’s operation going forward, and this one is even more extensive than usual because of the need to figure out how the Stanley Cup Playoffs could be held this season.

So what’s new? Let’s dive in. (Note that this is all pending approval by the players, who are on day two of a three-day voting window. A simple majority of player approval is needed to ratify the deal, which we will know for sure at the close of business Friday.)

Return to Play

Most of this had leaked out over the past month or so of negotiations, but now it’s set in stone: Phase 3 (training camps) will begin on July 13, and after about two weeks of ramping up teams will travel to hub cities July 24 to prepare for the start of Phase 4, the playoff qualifying series, which begins July 30 in Toronto (Eastern Conference) and Edmonton (Western Conference).

Any player who is not comfortable returning to play can opt out of the restart with no questions asked and no adverse consequences. There is a three-day window for players to declare their preference, which opens upon the ratification of the new CBA. In other words, players will have until next Monday - the first day of training camp - to opt in or out.

Once teams arrive in their hub cities, there is a whole laundry list of protocols to be followed: five groups of individuals with varying levels of access, testing procedures, what happens if a player (or players) tests positive, and so on. It’s a dizzying level of detail, and way too specific to go into here. But just about everything that can be considered has been, and there are even protocols to handle things that aren’t specifically spelled out. They expended a ton of effort to make this work.

From a fan’s perspective, August is going to be one of the greatest months in hockey viewing history: six games per day, beginning at noon, separated by two hours, pretty much every day. Yeah, it means the Hurricanes are likely to play their share of 4:00 games, but in a month that’s usually bereft of any sports excitement, the NHL is going to have a World Cup-style schedule, and it’s going to be freaking awesome.

Looking to the Future

Now that we know when this year’s action will restart, the NHL can start planning the schedule for years to come - and it’s going to get mighty crowded in the offseason.

According to the updated calendar of critical dates, the new league year - also known as the opening of free agency - will begin Friday, Oct. 9, which could be as few as seven days after the end of the Stanley Cup Final. And in that span between the end of the Final and the start of free agency, the 2020 draft will be conducted, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, October 6. It’s going to be as insane a period as the league has ever seen; business that usually takes three weeks or so will have as little as a week this year.

Typically, following the start of free agency, teams have about two and a half months of down time before training camp starts ramping up around mid-September. This year, that span will be condensed to just over a month. Training camp for the 2020-21 season is scheduled to start around Nov. 17, and the league is targeting Dec. 1 for the start of the next regular season. The league’s intention is to play a full 82-game season in 2020-21.

But we aren’t done yet. Because the new CBA allows for participation in the Olympics - more on that in a minute - the 2021-22 season will feature a multi-week shutdown, which will require the season to start as close to on time (or maybe even a week or so early) as it can. That means that the 2021 offseason will be squeezed as well.

Assuming each team plays around 16 games per month, the NHL would be looking at an end to the 2020-21 season in the neighborhood of May 5, 2021. Throw in a two-month playoff on top of that, and you’re looking at mid-July for the 2021 draft, about a month later than usual, and a late July free agency date. If 2021-22 is on a regular schedule, there will be about a month less of offseason time in 2021 than normal.

And, of course, all this assumes that sports can be played somewhat normally by that point, so this might all be an exercise in futility if the virus makes the decision for the league.

New CBA details

The NHL, somewhat strangely, was in a good place going into the CBA negotiations. The 50/50 revenue split is something that the owners didn’t need to renegotiate, and the players had a bit of leverage to tweak the details without significantly impacting the overall system. The players had two main concerns, escrow and the Olympics, and the owners conceded on both points.

First, escrow. There will be an escrow cap going forward, which was almost a necessity given the upside-down economics in the world for the near future. The players decided to forego their final paycheck from the 2019-20 season to pay down escrow, which was a decision largely made for them when the league lost around 40% of revenue after the season paused on March 12. In the future, escrow will be capped at 20% in 2020-21, and will decrease from there down to a low of 6% in the final years of the CBA, which runs through the 2025-26 season.

But what happens if, to achieve the required 50/50 revenue split, the escrow would need to be higher than the caps? The difference would be calculated, and if it’s more than $125 million by the end of the CBA, the agreement will extend an additional year at 9% escrow.

All this means that it’s possible that the players could make a bit more than 50% of revenue over the life of the new CBA, although it wouldn’t be much - a couple tenths of a percentage point, maybe.

In order to keep salaries from outpacing revenues, which would require higher escrow withholding, the salary cap will remain at its current level of $81.5 million until revenues return to roughly where they were prior to the pandemic. That will likely take a couple of years, and once they do, the new salary cap will be calculated based on the prior two years’ revenue, rather than only the preceding year as the current CBA provides for. In other words, the days of $5-6 million jumps in the cap from year to year are a thing of the past, barring some explosion of revenue in the later years of the new CBA.

As for the Olympics, the league will agree to allow the players to go to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the 2026 games in Milan, assuming a satisfactory deal can be reached among the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee. This is a sea change from the previous agreement, which required the NHL’s approval to release players to the Games before even beginning negotiations with the IOC and IIHF. Now, that approval is assured, and the IIHF in particular will have a key role to play in mediating some sticky details between the NHL and IOC. But the bottom line here is that the NHL is returning to the Olympics; it’s in the best interests of international hockey, and the NHL came around to the idea of shutting down midseason as it’s done in the past.

Some other new wrinkles in the new CBA:

  • July 1 (or, whenever the new league year starts) is once again the start of free agency. The “interview period” (aka legal tampering) a few days before the opening of free agency, which essentially just moved the date forward a few days, is no more, much to the relief of already overtaxed GMs at that time of year.
  • If a player who signs a multi-year deal at age 35 or older retires before the end of the contract, the cap hit will disappear as long as the yearly salary stays flat or increases throughout the deal. If the salary decreases during the deal, the cap hit will remain even after a retirement.
  • No-trade and no-move clauses will now transfer to a new team with a player. Previously, a trade provided the opportunity for the acquiring club to decide whether to honor the clause going forward. Now, they’ll no longer have that opportunity.
  • The minimum salary is going up a bit, and will reach $800,000 yearly by the end of the CBA.
  • Teams will no longer be able to condition a draft pick in a trade on a player re-signing with the acquiring team. In other words, deals like the one that sent Taylor Hall to Arizona, with a third-round pick coming back to New Jersey that could upgrade to a second- or first-round pick depending on if Hall re-signs with the Coyotes, will not be allowed. Conditions relating to games played, playoff qualification or advancement and the like are still allowed.

If you made it this far, congratulations. Now...any questions?