The NHL is planning for a full 82-game schedule next season and the usual four-round, best-of-7 format in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday.
"I anticipate playing a full season next season, 82 games, full playoffs," Commissioner Bettman said. "How and when we do that is something that we don't all have enough information to make any decisions, and anything would just be sheer speculation. Our goal is to get back to as greatest sense of normalcy as possible under whatever circumstances are presented."
The NHL initially targeted Dec. 1 as a possible start date for next season with the understanding that it was flexible and could be pushed back. Commissioner Bettman said next season might not begin until late December, if not possibly January.
The NHL paused this season March 12 because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus. It developed a Return to Play Plan that included 24 of the 31 teams and resumed play Aug. 1 with games in two Canada hub cities with no fans in the arenas. It began with a Stanley Cup Qualifiers round of round-robin games and eight best-of-5 series.
All Western Conference games were played at Rogers Place in Edmonton; all Eastern Conference games through the second round of the playoffs were played at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
Edmonton has been the hub city for the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final, which can extend to Sept. 30. Commissioner Bettman was speaking there prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.
"My preference would be to stay out of summer as much as possible," Commissioner Bettman said. "Our fans typically like watching us through the fall, winter and into the spring, and it's always been a goal to be done by the end of June. Playing in late July, August and September was important to do now. If we can avoid it we will, but it's premature to have an answer other than we understand the issue and we're going to try to deal with it as best we can."
Commissioner Bettman said the NHL is looking into every option for how next season could play out but that it's premature to draw conclusions because much will depend on government restrictions that could be in place because of the pandemic.
"There is still so much we don't know," the Commissioner said. "Nobody can tell me whether or not the border between Canada and the United States is going to be open by a date certain. Nobody can tell me what the state of COVID-19 is going to be. Nobody can tell me whether or not our arenas will be able to have either socially distanced or fully occupied buildings."
The NHL could start next season without fans in the arenas and then move into a modified attendance with a percentage of the building occupied by fans later in the season before possibly going to full attendance if all restrictions are lifted, Commissioner Bettman said.
"How we start doesn't necessarily mean that's how we have to finish," he said.
The delayed start to next season could impact the 2021 NHL Winter Classic between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, scheduled for Jan. 1 at Target Field in Minneapolis. Commissioner Bettman said he is not sure what would become of the Winter Classic if it can't be played Jan. 1.
"If it were to be [postponed] we would make appropriate, suitable arrangements to make it up to the great fans in Minnesota of the Wild," Commissioner Bettman said. "How we conduct our major events obviously has the ability to be impacted by everything else that is going on. We'll make good on it in some fashion if in fact we can't do it as planned."
Commissioner Bettman also said he's confident the NHL and its teams will be able to weather the financial stress that has been caused by the inability to have fans in arenas. He said attendance impacts at least 50 percent of Leaguewide revenue.
"The only good news in this context is that the ownership of the 31, soon to be 32 NHL franchises, has never been stronger and healthier," Commissioner Bettman said. "While nobody has any revenue coming in right now, and owners are obviously writing checks to cover overhead and expenses, our franchises will get through this and will come out stronger on the other side."