Rather than working towards progress on a new collective bargaining agreement in the coming days, the league is expected to start making grim announcements that will be all-too-familiar to fans who lived through the 2004-05 lockout.
It's a virtual certainty that a full 1,230-game schedule won't be played, with commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledging Wednesday that "it looks like an 82-game season (for each team) is not going to be a reality."
"Things seem to be not progressing the way we would like — it's disappointing," Bettman told reporters at a press conference announcing the Islanders move to Brooklyn in 2015.
The NHL had set a Thursday deadline to reach a new deal with the NHL Players' Association that would allow for the puck to drop on Nov. 2. But all signs point to that deadline passing quietly.
An invitation from the union to reopen talks was quickly rebuffed on Tuesday night because the NHL said it had been told the NHLPA wasn't prepared to offer something new.
"The players made multiple core-economic proposals (last week) that were a significant move in the owners direction," said NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. "We are and continue to be ready to meet to discuss how to resolve our remaining differences, with no preconditions. For whatever reason, the owners are not.
"At the same time they are refusing to meet, they are winding the clock down to yet another artificial deadline they created."
All regular-season games through Nov. 1 have already been cancelled — 135 in total — but there was hope that they might be revived as part of a condensed schedule. The next round of cancellations, expected by Friday according to a source, will ensure the best-case scenario for 2012-13 is a shortened season.
The Jan. 1 Winter Classic game between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at the Big House is already in serious jeopardy, as is the Jan. 27 all-star game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
One veteran labour negotiator believes the NHL's CBA talks have played out as expected so far because "nobody has lost any money yet."
"(They're) getting closer though," he added.
Players are scheduled to miss their second paycheques next week — this one larger than what they would have received during the abbreviated Oct. 15 pay period — while owners are facing more empty dates for their arenas and the growing possibility that some fans won't return when the work stoppage ends.
The permanent cancellation of games will add a new wrinkle to negotiations. To this point, the sides have been trying to work out how to split up $3.3-billion in annual revenues, but the pie will be smaller by the time a new agreement is finally reached.
For now, neither the NHL nor NHLPA is willing to table a new offer or begin verbal negotiations off the other's position. As a result, a week has passed without a face-to-face meeting at a time when some hoped they'd be hammering out the final details of an agreement.
"There are just some times where you need to take time off because it's clear that you can't do anything to move the process forward and we're at one of those points right now because we gave our very best offer," said Bettman.
"You can't dance by yourself," he added.
The league's latest proposal included a 50-50 split of revenues between owners and players, and a number of changes to contracting rules, including a five-year term limit, shortened entry-level deals and unrestricted free agency pushed back to age 28 or eight years of service.
The union countered with three offers that focused solely on economics. Each of those saw revenue get to a 50-50 split over time — an important provision for the NHLPA because it wants to ensure all current contracts are paid out in full, something that will become even more challenging when games are cancelled for good.
The league remains open to tinkering with the "make whole" provision in its latest offer, which would see players receive deferred payments for any portion of their salary affected by an immediate drop in revenue share from 57 per cent to 50 per cent.
But it appears that some time will pass before that type of discussion happens.
In the meantime, the NHL is back in a familiar spot. A lockout wiped out 468 games during the 1994-95 season and all 1,230 games in 2004-05.