Things had started to change by the time the Sabres beat the Washington Capitals on Monday night. The media was no longer in the dressing rooms and players were being brought to an interview area but nothing else was really amiss. Practice the next two days was normal, albeit with the same media restrictions. Ralph Krueger waxed poetic about what it would be like to coach a game in Montreal.
The Sabres headed to Montreal on Wednesday afternoon and that's when things dramatically turned. The report of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert's positive coronavirus test later that night in Oklahoma City brought the sports world to a standstill and was a tipping point on the pandemic for society as a whole. Like other NHL teams, the Sabres were told to stay away from the arena and not hold their morning meetings. By Thursday afternoon, we had a whole new definition for March Madness and the NHL season had been put on hold.
Clearly, no one knows how this situation is going to play out. Hockey's hiatus brings many questions and we're going to try to answer them with the expectation that play will resume at some point and the Stanley Cup will be awarded. But as we learned the last few days, nothing is certain.
What's a reasonable return date for workouts? It's hard to believe it could be this week, as NHL Players 'Association head Donald Fehr indicated might be possible on Friday while speaking to the Associated Press. Players have been told to self-isolate and stay away from team facilities. They would initially return in small group skates but to think any sort of all-clear is going to be given so soon seems unrealistic. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has publicly said his league's break is going to be at least 30 days. You'd have to think the NHL and the PA should be working on a similar assumption.
Does the schedule just pick up or is the regular season over? It's all about the timing of when the teams are allowed to come back to work. They're going to need a short training camp before play begins. If you want the Stanley Cup awarded before July – and it was given out on June 24 in both the lockout seasons of 1995 and 2013 – then you're going to have to start the playoffs the first week of May. Maybe the schedule is shortened from 82 games to, say, 76 so all teams play the same number of games.
To keep pushing revenues, the league undoubtedly would like to play at least some of the remaining 189 regular-season games (the Sabres have 13 left). That would help the players too in areas such as escrow from their paychecks and next season's salary cap. But it's going to be tough. Unless there's a serious push to start camps in the next two or three weeks, the sense here is the season would be over and the league is simply going to have to decide how to proceed with its tournament. There's a decent chance we've seen our last Sabres games until October.
Does the situation save Jason Botterill's job for now? Maybe. There's going to be so much chaos involved with the league's offseason calendar – and so little chance to do any scouting and maybe player interviews because of the virus outbreak – that it might be imprudent to fire the general manager and try to bring somebody else in. A new regime would have little chance to make its own evaluation of players and it might be difficult to get new hockey operations staffers on board in the current climate.
Botterill has obviously done a poor job in his three years. The Pegulas probably fired Tim Murray a year prematurely, when the former GM knew he needed to spend the summer of 2017 shoring up his defense. Murray never got that chance because ownership had tired of him on a personal level. Botterill knows he needs to shore up the imbalance in his roster between forwards and defense, make a decision on Sam Reinhart, perhaps get the ball rolling on a Rasmus Dahlin extension and utilize the large amount of cap space he will have. Ownership might want to give him the chance it didn't give Murray. And if things go badly early next season, there's no reason the Sabres can't go the route of the Devils (Ray Shero) or Wild (Paul Fenton) and remove the GM during the season.
The organization has made no decision on Botterill. It was waiting to see how the season played out. There were still 13 games left. If those never get played? You wonder if he gets the benefit of the doubt.
If the Sabres are done, what would the playoffs look like? In the East, it would be Boston-Columbus, Washington-Carolina, Tampa Bay-Toronto and Pittsburgh-Philadelphia. In the West, it would be St. Louis-Nashville, Vegas-Winnipeg, Colorado-Dallas and Edmonton-Calgary. That's if the season is ended with the standings as is. The league, however, is going to have issue at the ownership and GM level due to current inequities for the final wild-card slots.
The Islanders are one point behind Columbus with two games in hand and thus have a better points percentage and it's the same in the West, where Nashville and Vancouver are tied for the last spot two points behind Winnipeg, but each with the same two games in hand and better points percentage. You wonder if, as a way to bring hockey back, the league runs a baseball style play-in game, or even a best-of-three series, for the final spots on each side. The league is adamant about the Cup final being the standard best-of-seven series. We could see best-of-five for at least a round or two before that, depending upon when play resumes.
Which teams benefit most from a break and then a resumption of the playoffs? Look simply at those with injuries. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos was almost certainly going to miss the first round after core muscle surgery but that might no longer be the case and what a boost that could be for the Lightning in a potential series against the Leafs. Colorado has been beat up for weeks and Nathan MacKinnon was going to be out a week or two with a lower-body injury sustained just before the pause. Now MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri and the other Avs could all be ready. Same story in the East with Columbus, which would again be a live wild card with a full lineup. And while Pittsburgh has struggled mightily of late, the unexpected return of Jake Guentzel to an early-round series would be a huge boost.
What happens to the offseason calendar? These are the huge unanswered questions most teams have. The draft lottery was expected to be held April 9 and that's not going to happen now until there's a resolution on whether the regular season is over. But the more complicated issues are the scouting combine in Buffalo the first week of June, the NHL Awards Show June 17 in Las Vegas and the draft June 24-25 in Montreal. Just like putting fans in arenas for games, no one knows what the guidelines are going to be for large gatherings in a couple of months. All of these could be pared back for this year. And it's conceivable that July 1 won't be free agency day either, especially if the Stanley Cup has just been awarded a couple of days before or even if it's still being contested in July for the first time in history.
What about the salary cap? The league has already indicated a number between $84 million to $88 million, a jump from the current $81.5 million. But what if both the regular season and the playoffs are canceled? The loss of revenue could be catastrophic to the point where the cap might actually go down for next season. You want to see cap-strapped teams be in even worse shape? There's your scenario. Teams like the Sabres with a lot of money to spend would definitely benefit, but we're still a long way from that kind of decision.
Forget the 2010s
The Sabres' first home game postponed by the suspension of play was Friday night against Boston and it was going to be the team's 2010s Night as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.
Of course, there wasn't much to celebrate in the decade with no playoff games since 2011 and a revolving door of coaches and GMs after Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff were both fired in 2013.
My biggest question remains the first year. It's easy to forget the 2010 Sabres won the Northeast Division championship and were a clear favorite against Boston in the first round. They won Game 1 but lost Game 2 after Boston's Johnny Boychuk chopped Thomas Vanek in the ankle. The Sabres were never the same again. A hobbled Vanek tried to return in Game 6 but was ineffective as the Sabres were eliminated.
And while the 2011 Sabres had a 3-1 lead in the clinching Game 6 at home against Philadelphia before losing in overtime (to Ville Leino, of all people) and then got blown out in Game 7, it's 2010 that's the real what-if. The '11 team erupted to a 16-4-4 finish after Terry Pegula's purchase of the team to sneak into the playoffs but the '10 squad was a seasonlong leader and Ryan Miller had the best season of his career, including his starring role in the Vancouver Olympics.
Those two years were worth celebrating. After that? Hard to say. Maybe the Sabres were planning a group howl to allow fans one more chance to pat themselves on the back for turning their back on their own team and rooting for the Arizona Coyotes.
Worlds likely to get shelved
You have to believe the World Championships set for May in Switzerland will be canceled when the IIHF Council holds a conference call Tuesday. NHL players would be in limbo about participating, first not knowing if the NHL regular season would be over by then and secondly about traveling to a country that has been likewise dealing with the virus and wiped out the season of its pro league.
The IIHF announced Friday it has canceled the Under-18 Worlds set for April 16-26 in Plymouth and Ann Arbor. That's a big loss for NHL teams, who heavily scout that tournament each year in anticipation of the draft. Same for the NCAA Frozen Four.
The IIHF Council has informed USA Hockey today of its decision to cancel the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Story: https://t.co/QWNAuh5xWC pic.twitter.com/XYV0gJwnlb
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) March 13, 2020
Around the rinks
• Folks at Canisius were understandably proud last week when former star Ryan Schmelzer was named AHL Player of the Week at Binghamton. But another interesting nugget from the land of the Ice Griffs is this: Schmelzer is one of five Canisius players who has appeared in the AHL this season, joining Cory Conacher and Logan Roe (Syracuse), Ralph Cuddemi (Laval) and Dylan McLaughlin (Rockford).
• When you want to talk about bad luck, you have consider the story of Hurricanes broadcaster John Forslund. The veteran voice, who also does plenty of work for NBC Sports Network, is at home in self-isolation after it was determined he stayed in the same Detroit hotel room occupied by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert just after Gobert had a positive test.
At this time last week, few of us had ever heard of the terms "self-isolation" and "flattening the curve." What a week. What a world. Wash your hands.