Talk about a news dump on the Friday before Christmas.
As reported by several outlets, the NHL and NHLPA have reached a tentative agreement for the start of the 2021 season. The players had a conference call on Friday to discuss the details, while the owners are scheduled to have their teleconference on Monday.
Indeed the holidays came early for hockey fans.
We don’t know the full scope of the agreement, but some details give us a better idea of certain aspects as the league attempts to navigate the year during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a look at some of those details.
The start dates
Both the owners and players aimed for a Jan. 1 start date following the end of the postseason. But as circumstances changed, so too did the date to begin.
Now we’re looking at a Jan. 13 puck drop and a 56-game regular season. Yet, every team won’t have much time to prepare for the new year.
The 24 teams who qualified for last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs will reportedly begin their training camps on Jan. 3. The other seven teams start their camps a few days earlier on Dec. 30.
To go from a usual 3-4 week camp to a mere 10-14 days will present challenges. The off-season additions will have to get acclimated to their new squads quickly, while candidates battling for a roster spot will have to impress their front offices and coaching staffs.
The 2013 lockout-shortened season presented similar challenges from an on-ice standpoint. Off the ice remains a different story, however.
The re-aligned divisions
The closure of the U.S.-Canada border forced the NHL’s hand. And things could look different for at least one season.
The Bruins, for instance, won’t see fellow Atlantic Division foes Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Senators, Red Wings, Panthers or Lightning at all this year, at least until the playoffs (more on that below). The Sabres are the only ones from the Atlantic joining Boston in their realigned division with the Capitals, Islanders, Rangers, Devils, Flyers and Penguins.
The Lightning and their in-state rival Panthers will join the Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Blackhawks and Stars. Most of the Pacific Division will remain intact with the Wild, Avalanche and Blues replacing the three Western Canadian squads to join the Ducks, Kings, Sharks and Coyotes.
But the league has a potential roadblock for the Canadian division. Canada’s government hasn’t given the league approval to begin operations for the country’s seven professional hockey squads. The NBA’s Raptors and MLB’s Blue Jays both had to set up shop in the U.S. during the pandemic and the NHL may have to do the same with the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Senators, Canucks, Flames, Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
The league hopes to have the border situation solved by Monday. If all else fails, we may not see any realignment at all. Yet, even for just one year, it will be quite strange seeing a pair of Original Six franchises — Toronto and Montreal — setting up operations in one of the 50 U.S. states.
However things align, the 56-game schedule will likely look the same with each team playing their divisional foes eight times in 2021.
For those who long for the days of the Adams and Smythe Division finals, well this format will look eerily similar — more so than the current wild card look.
According to Elliotte Friedman, the top four teams in each division will advance to the postseason in a 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 format. The postseason division winners will then face off in the Stanley Cup semifinals.
No word on whether teams will enter a bubble at any point of the postseason.
Just like the postseason, the players and owners agreed on extended rosters. Each team can have as many as six players on a taxi squad, giving coaches a little more flexibility to maneuver their lineup following a shortened training camp.
Will fans be allowed to attend games? In some cities, they might, as long as certain states give the green light in a socially distant capacity. For their part, the Bruins reportedly looked at playing in front of fans at local outdoor venues like Fenway Park. I don’t see that happening here, though, especially with the Patriots playing in front of empty seats at Gillette Stadium, but that’s just speculation.
I’ll be interested to see the COVID policies once the new agreement is ratified. Every team in the playoff bubble did a wonderful job adhering to the guidelines, but the rise in cases may force the NHL to make certain alterations to their policy. Will each player have to wear a facemask when they aren’t on the ice? Will there be social distance guidelines on the benches — as tight as that space already is? We may know more this week on any additional safety measures, because that’s singlehandedly the top priority.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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