The NHL is exploring short-term hubs and a divisional realignment in order to make the 2020-21 season more feasible during the coronavirus pandemic, according to NHL.com's Nicholas J. Cotsonika.
Commissioner Gary Bettman broached the idea of temporary hubs during a panel discussion at the the 2020 Paley International Council Summit as a way to minimize travel without returning to a season-long bubble.
"You'll play for 10 to 12 days. You'll play a bunch of games without traveling. You'll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We'll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need. It's not going to be quite as effective as a bubble, but we think we can, if we go this route, minimize the risks to the extent practical and sensible. And so that's one of the things that we're talking about."
Bettman added he "would never" ask players to return to a bubble for a full season. In Bettman's mind, teams would rotate in and out of playing in the hubs, which could help maintain a solid television schedule with the league's broadcast partners.
The newest potential solution to staging a season during a pandemic is still subject to agreement from the NHL and NHL Players' Association, though there's reason to believe athletes may be open to this type of arrangement.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has previously advocated for a more body-friendly travel schedule that doesn't constantly zap players of their energy.
Speaking to Mark Lazerus of The Athletic in October 2019, Toews explained players across the league would be open to a revised schedule that allows more time for recovery:
"I've talked to guys on other teams in the Central Division, and they complain about the same thing, where they're coming and going to cities like Dallas and Nashville and Colorado, and eventually it's going to be Arizona (when Seattle enters the league), and even the East Coast teams. We went to New York three separate times (two years ago) to play all three teams. To me, that's just insane. That's not even in your division. You can't do an Eastern swing and go play in New York three games? I just think the coming and going is out of control, and if we can do something about it, not only in the Central Division but across the league, you're going to get better games on the ice and guys are going to stay healthy."
The league has now at least floated a potential path toward meeting in the middle, though many hurdles remain—including how to incorporate the NHL's seven Canadian teams with non-essential travel prohibited at the border.
"Obviously, we're not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th Parallel, and so we have to look at alternative ways to play," Bettman said. "And while crossing the U.S.-Canadian border is an issue, we're also seeing within the United States limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states. It's again part of having to be flexible."
The commissioner said the league "may be better off" playing a reduced schedule with more geographic-centric divisions. Those options—which mirror the 2020 Major League Baseball season's structure—are being contemplated by the league before it makes a formal offer to the NHLPA.
There is currently no timeline for the 2020-21 season. The NHL has repeatedly pointed to January 1, 2021, as a potential start date but has yet to commit to a schedule.