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Inside the NHL

Isles GM Lou Lamoriello is optimistic but it's still hard to see a path to play anytime soon

The days keep flipping off the calendar. Half the time, you barely remember what day it is.

I had to look up these dates up to keep them straight and out of our Groundhog Day mentality: The Sabres' season finale was going to be Saturday in KeyBank Center against Philadelphia. Locker cleanout day would have been Sunday. The Stanley Cup playoffs were slated to start Wednesday, without the Sabres for the ninth straight year. The draft lottery, for which they seemingly have an annual reservation, was set for Thursday at NHL Network studios in Secaucus, N.J.

We just got past April Fool's Day and there was no place for joking. April 1, in fact, was the 101st anniversary of one of the lowest moments in NHL history. It was April 1, 1919, when Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Seattle was called off due to the Spanish Flu pandemic and the series was abandoned, four days before the death of Montreal's Joe Hall.

We started a new month without sports, just like we ended March. We're not going to have any of the big four leagues in April either -- and it's going to be the first April we don't have at least one of them since 1883.

Yes, I said 1883.

Most of the time, we love the Elias Sports Bureau. But the keeper of the world's stats really hit us with a gut-punch with that nugget.

March of 2020 was when we learned about "social distancing" and "flattening the curve." Maybe I was behind the curve but I had never heard of "Tiger King" when the month started either. Still haven't watched it.

Think of all that went by the boards in March. The NHL and NBA shut down. So did spring training. March Madness was wiped out. The Masters was postponed. So were the French Open, Kentucky Derby, Indy 500 and the Boston Marathon. And the Tokyo Olympics were pushed back a full year.

The Canadian junior playoffs and Memorial Cup were canceled, a big loss for Sabres mega prospect Dylan Cozens. The World Hockey Championships in Switzerland were bagged, and that's a loss for Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and probably a couple other Sabres who would have benefitted from the competition in the absence of yet another playoff miss.

It continued on April Fool's Day as Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II.

As for the NHL, it's not hard to find people who privately say the hockey season is toast, that all the factors are too insurmountable to overcome. Most rinks have taken out the ice to save on the costs of their refrigeration systems running to maintain it but that's not a huge deal. You can rebuild your rink if you get the go-ahead within a couple days.

Still, I'm having a hard time finding a path to play for several more weeks. It seems inconceivable there could be any resumption to the regular season, and that if we see hockey again we'd have to go right to the playoffs. It's almost certainly going to have to happen initially in empty arenas, but can gave American and Canadian television networks some badly-needed programming and revenue in a summer that has seen them lose the Olympics.

The Canadian border remains shut tight. And New York City is once again Ground Zero, the hottest spot on the globe for the coronavirus pandemic. Aren't there going to be players -- or entire teams -- that just refuse to go the Big Apple if they're scheduled there? Two major obstacles.

Still, NHL teams have been asked for arena availability through August and that's probably one reason Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello is one prominent name who is maintaining optimism.

"I’m extremely optimistic that we will play at some time as far as this season,” Lamoriello told Newsday on Thursday. “Whether it’s in June, whether it’s in July, whether it’s in August, I’m not thinking about that. I’m just thinking, in my mind, knowing that we will play and using this time to get ready for that.

“But prior to that, the most important thing is everyone staying safe and everyone doing the things in the best interest of their families because we’re in a different world today."

Toronto and Calgary have both canceled all city-run events that require permits through June 30. Now, those are largely public festivals and not professional sporting events in arenas or stadiums but there are still extremely tight mandates on public gatherings. There's obviously going to be no games in April and almost certainly May. Then we see.

The NHL has given no indication of a drop-dead date for the season. Lots of plans are floating around that would push back the start of next season until November and deputy commissioner Bill Daly has been adamant the league's mandate is to have a full 82-game season in 2020-21.

So that point alone will have the clock ticking on 2019-20 at some point in the coming months. Lamoriello acknowledged we could reach a date where it will simply be too late.

“Without question,” he said. “But I think Gary Bettman and his complete staff and the hockey people certainly are aware of all of that. And all of that is talked about daily in many contingency plans. I’ll leave that up to them to do that. We all individually have our own idea of when and where the last day is. Right now, that’s not the thought process. Right now, the thought process is using this time as productively as possible to be as ready as possible.”

Lamoriello, of course, has a horse in the race and wants to see the regular season finished. The Isles went 0-3-4 in their final seven games prior to the pause to fall out of a playoff spot, one point behind Columbus but with two games in hand.

Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs: What if Sabres had drafted Mike Bossy instead of Ric Seiling?

Belmont Park arena on hold

Speaking of the Islanders, New York State ordered construction on their new arena by Belmont Park to stop due to the virus but the team is not currently concerned the stoppage could impact its timetable to open the 2021-22 season there. The Islanders were planning to play all playoff games this year and all games next year in Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders had two games left at Barclays Center when the pause hit, March 17 against Calgary and March 22 against Carolina. The Sabres were slated to visit the Coliseum on March 26.

McDavid wants to finish regular season

When the NHL had its media Zoom calls in recent days, there was lots of chatter of how guys are filling their time at home and about how they want to move forward if the games can resume.

The uneven number of games teams have remaining in their season would clearly be an issue in determining playoff teams. Even if there's no way to playing 82 games, getting everyone to an equal number at least would be optimal.

Edmonton's Connor McDavid was the most adamant about getting in regular-season play.

"A fair season is a full season. If we can do that, then that's what we'd obviously prefer," McDavid said. "I don't think we can just step into playoffs, Game 1, Calgary comes to Edmonton, and guys are just running around killing each other and haven't played a game in two months. It'll end up the [AHL] Stockton Heat versus the Bakersfield Condors if that's the case. We want to keep guys healthy and we want to make sure everyone's up and ready to play some playoff hockey."

Still, the most likely scenarios -- with the caveat that this is if the NHL even plays at all -- revolve around an immediate start in the playoffs and perhaps an expanded field to accommodate teams on the current bubble due to games-played discrepancies.

"I wouldn't mind starting right at the playoffs," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby. "But there are a lot of guys in different situations. The more games you can play, the better integrity of it."

Said Washington's Alex Ovechkin on a call that also featured Islanders captain Anders Lee: "We don't want to play extra games. I would rather play playoffs right away. Sorry, guys."

Burke: Limit repeat trips to draft lotteries

Sportsnet's Brian Burke, the longtime former NHL GM, did a live Twitter chat last week that was relatively boilerplate except for two interesting nuggets.

Asked by one fan for one thing he wants the NHL to change, Burke immediately pointed to the draft lottery when he said, "I think fewer teams should have the ability to win the lottery. But once you’ve picked top 5 once, you aren’t in the lottery again for three years."

The Sabres and Oilers would not have liked those rules.

Asked by another what trade he worked on as the GM of the Maple Leafs that would have "shocked the world but never quite came to fruition," Burke said he was pushing hard to get Roberto Luongo around the time he was fired in 2013.

"The price would have come down to a lot but we were in the mix," Burke said. "They asked for (Jake) Gardiner, (Nazem) Kadri and two firsts. Way too steep, even for @strombone1."

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