The NHL was one of the first leagues to shut down its activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic back in early March. They were also one of the first to announce a return to play plan, with elaborate plans for a 24-team playoff to begin some time in late July or August.

But a new report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie suggests those plans may be premature.

It appears at least one NHL team has already reported multiple positive tests for COVID-19 before even beginning the NHL’s Phase 3. Both players and staff members tested positive and the team has had to shut down its facilities, which will surely cause a delay in their ability to begin Phase 3.

In a follow up tweet, McKenzie revealed the team in question: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

On June 13th, the Arizona Coyotes announced that a staff member had tested positive, but that none of their players or coaches tested positive. Now a week later, the Lightning have had multiple players and staff members test positive. Not a good trend to see so early on in the reopening plan.

Obviously, this is not good news for the Lightning and the players/staff affected. Hopefully those individuals are doing well and can recover soon.

But this is also not good news for the NHL and its plans to reconvene the 2019-20 season with the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

NHL’s reopening in jeopardy?

This news, and the trend of positive tests across the NHL, could certainly put the NHL’s reopening plan on hold for now.

The fact that these positive tests are occurring during Phase 2 of the NHL’s reopening plan, and not Phase 3, suggest we are in for a delay. Phase 2 includes voluntary workouts with players in team facilities, limited ice time, and consistent social distancing requirements, not to mention consistent testing. The discovery of multiple positive tests this early in the reopening plan, where there are more stringent social distancing and testing requirements, suggests that many more positive tests across the league are coming and therefore more delays in reopening.

It also means that the league is likely to think twice about moving to Phase 3. The league announced that Phase 3 would begin on July 10th, which is exactly four weeks away.

Does that look likely now? After two different teams have reported positive tests in just a week’s time?

How many more teams will report positive tests by the time July 10th rolls around? And will that mean yet another delay in the Phase rollout? Was July 10th, a date that many thought was too far away to start an NHL playoff tournament, in face too early to make it happen?

And perhaps a more important question: wouldn’t it be better just to call the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs off entirely and just focus on the future?

Back in April, I wrote exactly that: 

Then, if you want to re-open the league for the 2019-20 season, you’ve got to allow players and coaches a mini-training camp of sorts, which will take a week or two at minimum. These players can’t be expected to return to full playing shape after 2-3 months off, especially if they return in the middle of a playoff race and especially if the possibility of another Covid-19 outbreak is looming.

So now it’s mid to late June… and you want to continue playing a season that pressed the pause button three months prior? And put the next season, which starts in three months, in jeopardy?

What would be the point of this?

You’d be putting your entire league and fans at risk to finish a season that is basically doomed, all while also directly affecting the next league season.

You have to give it to the NHL to continue to hold out hope for the 2019-20 season. But at some point, you have to look at what’s happening in front of you. You can only play the cards in your hand, sometimes you just have to fold and hope for a better hand in the future.

Here’s the good news: the NHL is still able to back out of the ambitious return to play plan if they want to. They can shut it all down immediately, saving their players, staff, and fans from further exposure, and then put all their energy into the 2020-21 season.

Let’s see if they make the right call.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —
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