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The bubble is burst. Now what?

Looking at what lies ahead for the NHL and the 2020-21 season.

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After almost two full months of Stanley Cup playoff hockey, the season came to an end on Monday evening when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup. Less than 24 hours later, both teams are out of Edmonton and back in their home cities to begin their offseasons like the other 29 teams already were.

Once that final horn sounded in Game 6, it brought to an end the last hockey action fans will see until a date yet to be determined. When the 2020-21 season begins is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime, we are only left to ponder what next season will look like when it finally arrives.

Before we look ahead, we must first give credit to the NHL for the feat it just pulled off, successfully hosting a full playoff tournament inside a bubble atmosphere with little to no bumps in the road along the way.

From Gary Bettman to every individual NHL staffer grinding away for over eight weeks, it’s hard to imagine anything going more according to plan in 2020 than the Stanley Cup playoffs. Everyone who made it work deserves a vacation and an adult beverage (or two) for their service.

Now that the Stanley Cup bubble has burst, the NHL is left to work through its offseason program while devising a plan for next season in the process. Let’s take a look at a few questions the NHL will need to answer before they can drop the puck on next season.

When will the 2020-21 season begin?

Based on reports that have come out in the past few weeks, it appears the rumored December 1st start date is no longer in play for the NHL, but no other potential dates were provided.

With fellow winter league the NBA’s 2020-21 start up in the air as well, could the NHL perhaps aim for a season start on Christmas Day? The current CBA mandates that no games are scheduled between December 24-26, but perhaps the NHL and NHLPA could come to an agreement for just this season.

Outside of that, the next big date that sticks out is New Year’s Day when the NHL is scheduled to host its annual Winter Classic. This year’s game is set to take place at Target Field in Minneapolis between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. Starting a new season with a marquee event like the Winter Classic has to be something the NHL is at least looking into.

How many games will be played?

Even if the NHL were to change course and decide on December 1st as the 2020-21 start date, it’s hard to imagine they could squeeze a full 82-game slate into that much of a condensed timeline.

The last time the NHL played an abbreviated season was in 2012-13 when a lockout delayed the start of the season until January 19th. That season they played a 48-game schedule and pushed the end of the regular season back to the end of April with the Stanley Cup being awarded in late June.

Should the NHL get up and running again by the new year at the earliest our best guess is somewhere between 52-56 games making up the season.

There is also the question about how flexible the league can be with postponing and rescheduling games should positive COVID cases pop up like we saw with the MLB this summer.

How will they handle testing?

It was well documented just how expansive and successful the testing process was inside the NHL playoff bubble and the NHL will need that to continue if they hope for the 2020-21 season to go off with as few hiccups as possible.

Improved antigen testing is helping college football provide rapid testing to all players and coaches, identifying positive cases and isolating infected individuals. This will undoubtedly be utilized by the NHL once the new season commences and could be a key factor in playing the 2020-21 season to completion.

What will player protocols look like?

While the MLB ran into issues early in the season with players testing positive and forcing many games to be postponed, most of the positive results came from just a handful of team fueled by players breaking the protocols agreed on by MLB and MLBPA.

Not having the bubble to protect players and staff from the outside world for a full season presents many challenges and positive cases are bound to turn up. For the NHL, limiting exposure and identifying positive cases early on will be what determines just how smoothly next season goes. Putting proper protocols in place and the players following them to a T will be a must.

Will there be fans?

It’s hard to imagine there will be fans in the stands when the new NHL begins. Baseball just completed a 60-game season in primarily outdoor venues and had no fans from start to finish and NFL teams are somewhere between no fans or a severely limited amount.

There is no saying how the pandemic will evolve in the coming months, but it’s safe to assume that teams will be playing in front of empty seats for at least the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

Could there be another playoff bubble?

A lot of how the NHL answers this question will be determined just how smoothly the regular season portion of the 2020-21 season goes. If you polled the players right now about doing another bubble for next year’s Stanley Cup playoffs the results would surely be a resounding “No.”

Although it was a unique moment to be a part of, players didn’t seem too fond of being locked away and separated from their families and rest of society for weeks on end. If the NHl decides when do need to bubble again, perhaps the extra planning time could allow them to create the proper protocols to allow families inside the bubble as well.

Expanded Rosters?

This is another question that will rely on outside circumstances to determine a final answer. With no minor league season, Major League Baseball implemented expanded rosters at the MLB level for all teams. Should there be no AHL season next year this is something the NHL will surely consider. Even if the AHL does resume this is still an option the league will have to consider to make it easier for teams to adjust should positive cases emerge.

With the 2019-20 season now complete, the NHL will turn its attention to the offseason and everything that comes along with it. At the same time, the league will need to flesh out a plan for how they will handle the 2020-21 season, beginning with determining exactly when it will begin.

Once they have a date figured out all the other pieces can start to fall into place, and in conjunction with the NHLPA, develop a comprehensive road forward for the league. Above are just a few of the questions they will need answer before we see teams back on the ice in the safest possible manner.