The National Hockey League has been working hard since the pandemic paused the 2019-20 season in March to bring hockey back. Earlier this month, the league and the NHLPA agreed on a plan to resume the 2019-20 season. If everything goes as intended, the NHL will resume play on August 1 and award the Stanley Cup in October. The Return to Play is excellent news for hockey fans; however, the restart of the season will have a dramatic impact on players as they compete to win the Stanley Cup during a global pandemic.   

The NHL announced that Phase 4 of the Return to Play plan will be composed of the Qualifying Round series, a round-robin tournament, and the official Stanley Cup Playoffs. All Phase 4 games will be played in Edmonton and Toronto. The plan will have a dramatic impact on player bonuses and several players have opted out of playing.

Games Played and Performance Bonuses

Regular Season Bonuses

In the Return to Play plan, the NHLPA and NHL have attempted to resolve issues around regular season bonuses. The two sides agreed to prorate the threshold of the minimum games needed for earning certain regular-season bonuses based on performance and games played. Typically, for a player to earn their bonus, a minimum games played threshold must be met. Since the 2019-20 season was shortened, the league and union have agreed to apply a proration factor of 70/82 to determine if a player has achieved bonuses. The plan outlines the following:

  • If a player meets the minimum games played thresholds only after the threshold is prorated by a factor of 70/82, he shall receive the Bonus amount prorated by a factor of 70/82.
  • If a player meets the minimum games played thresholds without the threshold being pro-rated by a factor of 70/82, he shall receive 100% of the Bonus amount.

Therefore, for example, if a players contract provided a bonus of $100,000 for playing in a minimum of 75 games in a season, the proration factor would be applied, and the player would only receive $85,365.85, assuming they met the games threshold after the proration factor was applied.

However, if the contract only had a threshold of 65 games played, for example, the player would be entitled to the full bonus amount as long as they played in a minimum of 65 games.

This can have a profound impact on a player with a bonus heavy contract. According to Capfriendly.com, Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks can earn up to $2,850,000 in performance bonuses this season. Pettersson’s base salary is $832,500, with a signing bonus of $92,500 for a total salary of $925,000 or roughly a third of the total amount he can earn in performance bonuses. The proration rate will probably help Pettersson achieve some performance bonuses in his contract, however, it is unlikely that he will receive the full $2,850,000.

While the system is not perfect, it seems to be a fair process to determine whether a player should earn their bonus.

Qualifying Round and Round-Robin Games

Most player contracts differentiate between regular season and playoffs when determining bonuses. Interestingly, the qualifying round and round-robin games are not considered playoff or regular-season games. Therefore, the games played and stats accumulated in these games will not help a player achieve their bonuses, assuming their contract differentiated between regular season and playoffs. If, however, the contract is written broadly and classifies all games as “NHL games,” then the qualifying round and round-robin games and the stats achieved will be counted towards a player’s bonus. 

While generally the games may not count towards games played bonuses or performance bonuses, they are important for various free agent classification calculations and salary arbitration, including but not limited to: 

  • Entry-level contract slide provisions
  • Group 6 free agent games played thresholds.
  • Group 2 restricted free agent professional experience credit
  • Salary Arbitration professional experience credit and statistics 

The agreement on how to handle bonuses is only one of many that the NHL and NHLPA agreed to earlier this month.

Player’s Opt-Out of Return to Play

The NHL has recognized that it is not safe for all players to return to play during the pandemic and agreed to allow players to opt-out of the Phase 4 of the Return to Play plan if they are not comfortable playing. In the opt-out provision, the league distinguished between two types of players; (1) players who themselves or a family member has a health concern that increases the risk that COVID-19 poses and (2) players who themselves or family members do not have a preexisting health concern. Players who wish to opt-out without a health concern had to notify the league within three days of the ratification of the Return to Play plan. As of July 15, six players opted out of the Return to Play. These players include:

Karl Alzner, Montreal Canadiens

Steven Kampfer, Boston Bruins

Mike Green, Edmonton Oilers

Roman Polak, Dallas Stars

Sven Baertschi, Vancouver Canucks

Travis Hamonic, Calgary Flames

Additionally, Max Domi, a type-1 diabetic, is evaluating whether to join the Montreal Canadiens in their qualifying round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If a player opts out of the Return to Play, under the rules of the plan, they can do so with no penalties, suspensions, or fines. However, since the player will not be taking part in the playoffs, they will not be entitled to any playoff games played or performance bonuses and will not receive a salary during the playoffs.

Along with ratifying the Return to Play plan, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to amend and extend the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”). Many of the highlights of the extended CBA are discussed by Carol Schram in her articles NHL 2020 Summer Training Camps Open After Return to Play, CBA Extension Approval, and NHL And NHL Players’ Association Finalize Protocols For 2020 Return to Play