Five thoughts about what's next for the NHL in 2020–21 and beyond

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers warm up before first-period exhibition NHL hockey action ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Toronto on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Nathan Denette / CP)

What’s next for the NHL?

I’m not asking that in some existential manner; I genuinely think people want an answer to that more literally. To be clear, I don’t have hard answers, as literally nobody does. The league is wisely waiting to put any decisions in stone — much as they were wise to wait on naming host cities for the 2019–20 NHL playoffs — which means all anyone can do is sit back and evaluate how the pandemic evolves over the winter months, which will affect the league’s available options.

But I do have some guesses about this and a small handful of other topics related to the off-season, and what's to come in 2020–21 and beyond. Here we go:

1. What will the NHL look like in the months to come?

What I think is most likely is that the NHL will play a shortened 2020–21 season that begins sometime in January (maybe 55-60 games?). It will likely start in a variety of hub cities — potentially two in Canada and a handful in the U.S. that are deemed the safest and most amenable to having some fans at the games. And there will almost certainly be a Canadian Division given border issues.

The goal will be to get through the early part of the season as the second wave hopefully subsides, so the league could add more fans for the second part of the season. I say “more fans,” because I think there will be an attempt to include at least some right off the bat, with numbers hopefully increasing as the months go on. I believe the league will do everything they can to play as many games as possible with as many paying humans present as is safely (or at least legally) allowable.

2. The potential All-Canadian Division: yay or nay?

I both like it and dislike it. I like the idea of Canadian teams playing Canadian teams. I like that those games should draw more eyeballs, at least north of the border. I like the idea of stoking rivalries between Canadian fans and cities, even if just temporarily.

But I certainly don’t like the idea that Canadian teams, who’ve long struggled to get anywhere meaningful in the playoffs, are suddenly going to be handed a spot in the Conference Final (assuming a divisional playoff format). Honestly, the worst-case scenario for Canadians, with the long struggle to bring the Cup back north of the border, is that they get it done in some shortened year with a Canadian team cut a clear path to the Conference Final. Of course it wouldn’t logically diminish anything – the team that won would still have gotten through the rest of the league – but you just don’t want to give non-Canadians the claim of “asterisk” in the year a team finally gets it done.

So in conclusion, I really like the idea of a Canadian division. I just don’t like the idea of it giving an out in hockey arguments to haters.

3. Will everything that's transpired in the past several months make teams and players appreciate fans more?

Hard yes, and I think for a good while, too. I had a laugh when I thought back to the time the Toronto Maple Leafs were accused of declining to salute their fans because they didn’t like how they were being treated or whatever. Suddenly the salary cap is flat for years and escrow is a billion percent and players are going to see a fraction of the deals they signed for because fans can’t attend the games. That reality will certainly earn them added appreciation.

That’s the cold aspect of it, though — the warm aspect is the realization of how much value fans add to games, I’d argue more so in hockey than any other sport, as hockey lives and dies with the rising “ooohs” and falling “ahhhs” that come as rushes build and dwindle.

We knew the game would miss the fans. We knew some pocketbooks were going to take on significant damage here. But seeing it play out in reality has really reinforced the show of love the game is inevitably going to give its patrons upon returning.

4. Why won’t anyone drop an offer sheet in a year you could clearly land a name player?

I’ve asked some NHL minds about this, and the general consensus is less “Well, cap space is tight and no one wants to offend anyone” and more “Honestly, I have no idea — I can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet.”

Mike Futa said on Sportsnet that the New Jersey Devils, during his GM interview, asked a lot of questions about offer sheets, as it was a method of rapid improvement they were interested in pursuing. The obvious hang-up here is they don’t have their own second-round pick in 2021, which hurts their ability to target players who fall within a pretty significant salary range — though, given what’s out there, you wonder if trying to trade back for that pick would be worthwhile (it likely would be!).

In all, it feels less a matter of “teams don’t want to do it because X,” (which you hear often) and more “each individual team has some limitation” (like the Devils’ lack of a second) that’s just inhibiting them from doing something they likely want to do.

That it hasn’t happened yet means it likely won’t. But maybe we’ll be surprised yet. Stay tuned, Lightning fans!

5. Will goalie tandems be more valuable next season?

Absolutely. One of the agreed-upon evolutions of the analytics era is that goalies perform significantly worse in the second half of back-to-backs.

Whatever happens next season, the one thing you can bank on is ample back-to-backs as they try to jam as much of the season into as small a timeframe as possible. Organizational goalie depth will be more important than ever.

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