The NHL’s return to play is officially a go. On Sunday afternoon, the league made a joint announcement with the players’ union stating that it will play a 56-game season starting Jan. 13, 2021. Obviously, that leaves very little time to kick things into gear and this will be far from a normal season, so you may have some questions about how it’s all going to work.
We don’t have all the answers just yet — the league is expected to reveal additional details in the coming days — but let’s see what we can clear up in the meantime.
What’s the divisional alignment?
We’ve known for some time that the NHL would be looking to temporarily shake up the divisions for this upcoming season. That realignment comes as a method of limiting travel and ensuring that teams will not have to cross the United States-Canada border during the pandemic. As part of the changes, one division will be comprised entirely of the league’s Canadian teams.
Various alignment ideas were proposed, but the NHL is moving forward with the following four divisions for 2021:
What is the schedule going to look like?
Every team will only play divisional games this season. Each team in the East, Central and West will play every other team in its division eight times, while the teams in the North division will play every other team in its division nine or 10 times.
In an effort to limit travel and potential COVID-19 exposure, teams will also often play several games in a row against a particular opponent. You can find more info on the NHL schedule here.
We also know some key scheduling dates, courtesy of TSN’s Pierre LeBrun:
- Start of the season: January 13
- Trade deadline: April 12
- End of regular season: May 8
- Last possible day of playoffs: July 15
- Expansion draft: July 21
- NHL Draft: July 23-24
- Start of free agency: July 28
How will the playoffs work?
The league will have a traditional 16-team, best-of-seven playoff format this year, though it will look a bit different thanks to the divisional realignment. The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs and be placed into divisional brackets for the first few rounds of the playoffs (No.1 seed vs. No. 4 seed, No. 2 seed vs. No. 3 seed).
The four teams that advance to the Stanley Cup Semifinal (known as the Conference Final in a normal year) will be seeded by their regular season points total, with the No. 1 vs. No. 4 seed and No. 2 vs. No. 3.
This format means, in theory, this year’s Stanley Cup Final could feature two teams that typically play in the same conference in a traditional season.
Where will games be played?
While the NHL elected to employ two hub cities (aka “bubble cities”) for its return to play in 2020, the league will allow teams to play games in their home arenas during the upcoming season. The NHL will let individual teams decide if they want to allow fans in the arena, and at least one team (the Dallas Stars) plans on having limited attendance.
However, if local COVID-19 regulations prevent a team from playing in their home arena, the NHL will provide a “neutral” site for games to take place.
What about training camp and preseason?
With less than a month to prepare for the start of the season, there won’t be a normal preseason this year. Training camps will officially open on January 3rd. (Teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season will be allowed to start December 31.) Each team will be allowed to have 36 skaters and an unlimited number of goalies attending training camp.
There will be no preseason exhibition games this year.
What will the COVID-19 protocols look like?
Obviously, a big focus during the upcoming season will be limiting the impact of COVID-19. With that in mind, the league has established some new protocols while playing outside of a bubble.
- The league will require teams to disclose when players have tested positive for COVID-19 during the season. Teams will no longer be allowed to use the “unfit to play” designation that was in place during the return to play over the summer
- Any players who test positive must follow isolation guidelines established by their local public health regulations. A player who tests positive must also be cleared by both a cardiologist and team physician before returning to the ice
- Any players who have been in close contact with a teammate that tests positive will be allowed to continue playing as long as they test negative and remain asymptomatic
- Coaches will be required to wear face masks on the bench
- Every player will get their own hotel room during road trips. Players and staff will not be allowed to eat at restaurants or go to bars/shops. All meals will be served at the team hotel and all transportation must be provided by the team
This post will continue to be updated as more information becomes available.