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The NHL's scheduling back-up plan

Ted Starkey says the NHL likely has a plan for a shortened season all ready to go if a CBA agreement is reached this month.

Bruce Bennett

While the NHL announced Monday that all games through December 30th are officially off the board, it's important for fans to remember that while those particular games are wiped out in theory, in reality, if the NHL returns this season, the old schedule will be shredded and there will will be a brand-new shortened schedule to formulate.

The announced cancellations at this point are just watermarks, mostly for bookkeeping purposes, to determine refunds and interest for season-ticket holders who have their funds tied up with teams, as well as to open up arenas for late bookings for events.

Also importantly - at least for the owners and their leverage on the NHLPA - it wipes out the next two paychecks due to the players, bringing that total up to six lost on the year, somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 million lost with nearly 43 percent of the games scrubbed from the schedule.

Now, of course, any talk about a new schedule depends on the two sides agreeing on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and despite last week's break in talks, it appears the two sides will hold talks again Wednesday. And while both sides have been all over the map in terms of sweeping generalizations of where they truly stand, by most accounts, the sides are within striking distance of a deal that can be reached before the season is scrapped.

Barring a major miscalculation by one or both sides, the two sides should reach an agreement before the season goes off the cliff, the drop-dead date for which will arrive in the next month. Both sides have much more to lose this time around than in 2004-05's lockout, as any potential for fiscal gain is pretty much eradicated if the season goes with it.

But what would a truncated season look like if they do get the season started in late December or January?

There's precedent for this type of schedule before, as the 1994-95 season began on Jan. 20, running through May 3 before the playoffs, which ran into late June before the Devils won the Stanley Cup. The season was compressed - with no All-Star break, like this year - and it's expected teams will only play teams in-conference, meaning roughly 48 to 56 games against the other 14 teams in the East and West.

The Capitals billed the shortened 1994-95 campaign "Sprint to the Playoffs," but they stumbled badly out of the gate, starting out 3-10-5 on the year. But Washington was able to recover once they recalled goaltender Jim Carey from the AHL, and managed to secure a playoff berth.

In reality, to put together a schedule for this year, the NHL now will mostly be using already scheduled home dates, with most coming with new opponents. For example, Washington already has had both home games against the Rangers and Penguins wiped out due to the cancellations, so certainly a new slate will contain at least one home game against each team. All that means is that teams likely will retain most of their existing home dates, but many will have new opponents rather than those scheduled.

In addition, you can expect that dates being held for home potential playoff games are in play, likely giving the NHL a regular season that will push through the end of April and perhaps into the first week of May.

Washington officially has lost 37 games to this lockout, meaning 45 dates remain, starting with the scheduled New Year's Eve game in Pittsburgh.

But at this point, the key now is when both sides eventually settle, and how much time they have to fit in games in what appears to be the eventual end game for this labor dispute.

And at that point, the question will shift from whether there will be a season to what kind of reception there will be to a shortened season.