The NHL return to play. What we know

Dropping Dimes

There might never have been a more challenging time to put together a National Hockey League season.

What about the previous three lockouts? That’s all player and owner-driven. Once they got the financial stuff worked out, there wasn’t anything preventing them from playing smoothly. A pandemic is out of the league’s control, and with North America not getting much closer to full containment, getting the NHL back on the ice has been so much more challenging than originally thought.

The NHL’s return to play plan for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs proved to be a massive success. The two-month-long tournament saw 24 teams split between Toronto and Edmonton, adding an extra “qualifying round” that saw teams like Montreal and Chicago overcome the odds as 12th seeds in their respective conferences to make the round of 16.

The Tampa Bay Lightning ended up defeating the Dallas Stars in six games to win their second Stanley Cup. There weren’t a ton of thrilling games, but by then, much of the fun had already occurred in the first two rounds of the extended post-season. 

Last week, the NHL announced its return to play plan for 2020-21, outlining many of the biggest questions heading into the uncertainty of what could be one of the craziest NHL seasons to date. Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know:

Key Dates

  • Dec. 28, 2020: Waiver period begins
  • Dec. 31: Training camps for the seven teams that didn’t partake in the 2020 playoffs
  • Jan. 3, 2021: Training camps begin for the remaining 24 teams
  • Jan. 13: Start of the 2020-21 NHL regular season
  • April 12: The current projected date of the trade deadline
  • May 8: End of the regular season
  • May 11: Beginning of 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
  • July 15: Projected latest date to award the 2021 Stanley Cup
  • July 17: Deadline for NHL teams to submit an expansion draft protection list
  • July 21: 2021 NHL expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken
  • July 23-24: NHL draft
  • July 28: Start of NHL free agency

What we know so far:

NHL’s start date: January 13, 2021

After a variety of changes to the start date of the 2020-21 season, the NHL announced last week that the campaign would begin on January 13, 2021. The original plan was to have the season start in December, allowing for a potential normal second half of the season to occur and preserve the dates of all the special events later in the year.

But with COVID-19 not going anywhere anytime soon, and with the vaccine still months away from mass public consumption, that became less and less likely as time went on. This mid-January start will push many events back much later than usual, but at least it’s a season, right?

Regular season length: 56 games

Unlike the 2012-13 season that saw a 48-game schedule due to a lockout, the NHL elected to push the dates of everything back in order to get more games this season. With no pre-season in 2020-21, the teams will get a nice cold bath to open up the campaign in January. This will be the longest partial season in NHL history, with the hopes of everything getting back to normal with an October start for 2021-22.

But in the time since, the league is believed to have requested the use of prorated salaries (with the understanding that the regular season won’t run for the usual 82 games) to help offset the losses in overall revenue due to fewer games and no fans in the stands. (A fantastic breakdown of what escrow means to the players can be found here – it can be a bit difficult to explain). Simply put, the NHL was asking for $300 million in concessions from players to make everything work this season, but there hasn’t been word as to whether the players or the NHL Player’s Association will agree to the request.

Divisions

With travel becoming an issue, the NHL needed to make a temporary change to the NHL’s division format for 2020-21.

The divisions are as follows:

  • North: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg
  • West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas
  • Central: Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay
  • East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

The idea is to keep all the teams in as close proximity as possible, while allowing Canadian teams to remain in the country due to travel restrictions. Through this, teams will play teams only in their division, which could create for some incredible rivalries when teams like Montreal and Toronto meet up 10 times this season.

That is, of course, if the individual Canadian provinces can come to an agreement to allow teams to play in their home cities. With spikes in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, stricter measures have been put in place to keep residents home. This is still a hurdle for the NHL to overcome, but something that’s been discussed by relevant premiers. 

Roster size adjustments

A game night roster will still require the same number of players: 18 skaters and two goalies. But to avoid call-ups due to injuries, teams will carry what’s known as a “taxi squad”, a group consisting of around 4-6 players and at least one goaltender. Teams can still utilize the AHL and waiver rules will still apply, but this will help keep things simple from day to day.

Real Kyper at Noon Roundtable w/Allan Walsh, Ian Pulver, Doug Maclean and Nick Kypreos

How rookie contracts work

Typically, NHL teams can send prospects back to junior hockey before they play their 10th NHL game in order to let the first year of their entry-level contracts slide. This year, they’ll need to be sent down before their seventh game in order to extend the ELC by a year – a huge bonus for teams to get a better read on a young player prior to negotiating their second NHL contract.

Fan attendance to be determined by local health authorities

This is still a major talking point on whether fan attendance will be allowed. In short: it will be up to the local health authorities. In fact, the Dallas Stars have already revealed their plans to allow up to 5,000 fans into their building for the start of the season. 

But it’s expected that the vast majority of the league, especially in Canada, will not permit fans. That doesn’t mean that teams will be allowed fans later on during the year, if at all, but it could be another season or two before we see crowds resembling what we’re used to.

What’s been cancelled

Winter Classic

The Winter Classic is a staple of the NHL season, with two teams playing in an outdoor setting in front of a large crowd each Jan. 1. But the event was a no-brainer to get canned: you can’t have over 38,000 people at Target Field in Minnesota when the pandemic is still a concern. 

The game would have been the second outdoor adventure for the aptly named Minnesota Wild after taking on Chicago in a 2016 Stadium Series game, while the St. Louis Blues – crowned Stanley Cup champs in 2019 – would have also taken to the open-air situation for the second time after facing Chicago at the 2017 Winter Classic.

NHL All-Star Game

You either love it or hate it, but the all-star game will not be back in 2021. The all-star game is typically an annual event at the end of January and was set to play at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida. This is the first cancellation of the event since the 2012-13 lockout, and the game had only previously been cancelled two other times, also due to NHL stoppages. With NHL participation set for the 2022 Olympics, the next event is expected in 2023.

Issues to overcome

How positive COVID-19 cases are dealt with

The NHL made it through the two-month playoff period with zero COVID-19 cases among any members of the bubble. Since then, though, Vegas and Columbus have confirmed to have had COVID-19 breakouts within their organizations, and that doesn’t account for any other potential cases throughout the league that haven’t been publicly reported.

The NHL did a good job of keeping measures in place so only members vital to the individual games were involved and, had they needed to, the league had plans in place to handle COVID-19 cases as they happened. But that was in a secure bubble with just two cities hosting a maximum of 12 teams each before cutting down a week after games resumed. How the NHL will handle positive cases is still unknown.

Will there be daily testing?

As of now, that’s not clear. The league used daily testing while in the bubble, but players will, in theory, still be able to participate in daily life without a bubble. Other leagues and sports have done semi-regular testing before events, and while a shortened NHL schedule means action could be condensed, this seems like the way they’ll go.

How many games will they play?

The NHL’s regular season typically begins each October. So, doing some slight math, it’s easy to discern that a January or February start date won’t give us an 82-game season, despite the NHL’s best wishes.

On Dec. 4, Friedman reported that the number of regular-season games would be “in the 50s”, a slight boost over the previously rumored 48-game schedule which would match the one used following the 2012-13 lockout. This could mean the Stanley Cup would be awarded in July. Then, the league can, hopefully, get back together in October and start things on time once again in a world that might have a remedy to further curb the virus. 

Will there be hub cities?

As it stands, there has been no official word as to how hub cities will work, if they are to exist at all. The league could move to mini-hubs between the two countries, such as separate east and west hubs and potential other ones across the United States. It’s not expected that the league will operate under a two-city policy as they did in the playoffs before due to the length of the season and a full slate of returning franchises.

What about the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Bettman previously said the expanded 24-team playoff was a one-time thing, but we aren’t completely sure how the post-season will look this coming year. But as it stands, don’t expect 24 teams again.

From there, the hope is for a return to a normal four-round playoff format, starting with the traditional first-round madness all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Potential of neutral site games

As it stands, there still hasn’t been a determination as to what will happen if teams are unable to play in their home rinks.

The NHL, NHLPA and local health authorities in Canada have yet to come to an agreement as to whether teams will be allowed to play in their Canadian cities due to the increase in cases across the country. Whether or not they’ll relocate somewhere in Canada or down to the United States is still uncertain.

In San Jose, the team will be forced to begin training camp in Arizona due to local health restrictions back in Northern California. After that, it’s in the air as to whether or not they’ll return home to the SAP Center in San Jose.

As for what would happen if a team needs to relocate from their home city during the season, the league is open to “neutral site” games elsewhere, but that’s an issue for a later date.

Could a team take the season off?

In some hockey leagues around the world, we’ve seen franchises decide to sit out the 2020-21 season. It’s more common in leagues where gate revenue decides whether a team can operate or not.

In the NHL, it’s expected that all 31 teams will participate, although ESPN reported that there were several disgruntled owners in the league that would rather sit doormat and prepare for 2021-22. 

Connor McDavid
Mar 2, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) during the first period against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

What’s been cancelled

Winter Classic

The Winter Classic is a staple of the NHL season, with two teams playing in an outdoor setting in front of a large crowd each Jan. 1. But the event was a no-brainer to get canned: you can’t have over 38,000 people at Target Field in Minnesota when the pandemic is still a concern. 

The game would have been the second outdoor adventure for the aptly named Minnesota Wild after taking on Chicago in a 2016 Stadium Series game, while the St. Louis Blues – crowned Stanley Cup champs in 2019 – would have also taken to the open-air situation for the second time after facing Chicago at the 2017 Winter Classic.

It’s worth noting that, while a cancellation seems likely, the Carolina Hurricanes are still scheduled to host the 2021 Stadium Series at Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 20, 2021. No opponent has been announced, and it’s unlikely the game will proceed as planned.

But, that doesn’t mean the NHL won’t play anything outside in 2021. On Dec. 3, Friedman reported that four teams – Anaheim, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh – have looked into playing home games in outdoor stadiums, which, according to Friedman, would allow some fans into the venue. Friedman stated that local area guidelines would not allow Anaheim and Los Angeles to commit to this format, and there is definitely concern about how the ice surface would hold up – one of the downsides of previous outdoor games is the poor ice quality – but it’s something to keep an eye on.

NHL All-Star Game

You either love it or hate it, but the all-star game will not be back in 2021. The all-star game is typically an annual event at the end of January and was set to play at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida. This is the first cancellation of the event since the 2012-13 lockout, and the game had only previously been canceled two other times, also due to NHL stoppages. With NHL participation set for the 2022 Olympics, the next event is expected in 2023.

Dropping Dimes