Just in time for the holiday season, NHL fans have something to celebrate as the league and its players officially announced plans for a 2020-21 NHL season.
The 56-game regular season is to begin Jan. 13, preceded by short training camps. If all goes according to plan, the regular season will wrap up May 8, playoffs will begin three days later, and the Stanley Cup will be awarded in mid-July.
While the next off-season would be compact and include an expansion draft, the plan for now is to return to a "regular" hockey season in 2021-22, with an October start for the regular season and June finish for the playoffs.
There are still details to iron out before certain specifics such as schedules and season start is locked in, but there is a confirmed, stated plan now. There is also optimism that what still needs to be resolved will be in time to keep all the target dates intact, though the NHL did acknowledge that it is prepared to adapt to ongoing uncertainty.
"Given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHLPA and the NHL intend to be flexible and adaptable in their approach during the coming weeks to ensure compliance with directives from both local and national governmental and health authorities focusing on the health and safety of the players, other game-related personnel and the communities in which we play. The priority will continue to be focused on the health and safety of our fans and Players and Club, League, NHLPA and arena personnel," the league stated in a release.
We do have more clarity on how this will all come together now, though, and so here is a look at some key questions ahead of a new season.
What are the divisions and do they have names?
Realignment was necessary for this season, to keep travel as limited and regional as possible, and to avoid crossing national borders. This is what those divisions are planned to look like, including the names the NHL is currently giving them all, though that is still subject to change.
East: Boston-Buffalo-New Jersey-NY Islanders-NY Rangers-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington
Central: Carolina-Chicago-Columbus-Detroit-Florida-Dallas-Nashville-Tampa Bay
West: Anaheim-Arizona-Colorado-Minnesota-Los Angeles-Vegas-San Jose-St. Louis
You love to see it.
What do you think of the realigned divisions for the 2020-21 NHL season? pic.twitter.com/tMbrAB5nZn
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 20, 2020
This is the NHL's current plan, though there are still details to work out in some of these markets...
Where will games be played?
For this season to get started on Jan. 13, there is still a lot of work to do as the league and some local health authorities discuss how to go about it safely and according to government guidelines. The NHL's plan is to have all 31 teams playing games in their home arenas, but it's not yet clear if that can happen everywhere.
A ban on contact sports in Santa Clara County, Calif., means the San Jose Sharks are already having to take their training camp to the Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz. Whether or not they'll be able to return home in time for the start of regular season games is not yet clear.
"That's not yet determined where those will be played," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said Sunday. "There's a lot of factors still to go into that. If they can't be played in Santa Clara there's a couple potential options we've been exploring. Just like we were exploring sites for training camp. Could be a hub city, could be us playing in another NHL city for a while. Until we see our schedule I don't think we'll know which and how many games will be affected."
And then there's the big question that still surrounds the whole Canadian Division (more on that later). Chris Johnston reported last week that a deal had not yet been reached between the league and all relevant authorities on allowing travel in and out of each city. Those negotiations are ongoing and the NHL's plan to follow regulations and assuage concerns includes testing players at least every other day (possibly more than that) and restricting movement in each city to basically the hotel and rink. It's an attempt to create a sort of bubble.
Details of the NHL's health and safety protocols will be released in the coming days.
"It's possible that if one or more of the Canadian teams aren't able to get the provincial sign off they need that they may start off on the road, but it's a little soon to say that for sure is going to happen," Johnston said in a recent appearance on Sportsnet Central.
While discussions over starting the regular season in Canada is still ongoing, agreements have been reached to allow the opening of facilities for the start of training camp in six of the seven cities, with Montreal as the only one yet to get sign off, though it's optimistic that will get done.
When will training camps open?
For the seven teams that did not return to play in the summer (Buffalo, Detroit, New Jersey, Ottawa, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose), training camps will open Dec. 31. All other teams will open four days later on Jan. 3.
Training camp rosters will be capped at 36 skaters (forwards and defencemen) this season, with an unlimited amount of goaltenders. There will be no exhibition games this season.
What is the taxi squad?
The salary cap remains at $81.5 million and teams will be permitted to have a 23-man roster that is compliant with that number. But, because of travel restrictions and potential quarantine rules if a player must be called up from the AHL on short notice, NHL teams will now also be allowed to carry a taxi squad of four-to-six players in the 2020-21 season.
Taxi squad players will be permitted to practice and travel with the NHL team, but will only count against the cap or be allowed to play in a game if they are "called up" to the pro roster. These moves will be subject to regular re-call rules, so if a player would require waivers to be sent from the pro roster to the AHL, he will similarly need to pass waivers to be sent back to the taxi squad. Contract rules will also be in effect -- a player on a one-way contract who is assigned to the taxi squad will receive their full NHL salary, while those on two-way contracts would receive their minor league pay while on the taxi squad.
Teams must carry a minimum of three goalies with them at all times, whether it's all three on the pro roster, or one available on the taxi squad. Players on the taxi squad will not be permitted to practice or play with any other organization outside of the NHL team.
When will we see a regular season schedule and what will it look like?
The NHL will release a schedule in the coming days, likely after it gets more clarity on some of the previously mentioned sites. What we do know is that regular season games will only be intra-divisional, so teams will get very familiar with each other even in the shortened season.
Each team in the East, Central, and West divisions will play one another eight times, while those in the North (or Canadian) division will see each other nine or 10 times. That's a whole lotta Battle of Alberta.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) December 20, 2020
You can also expect a very compact schedule, more back-to-backs than usual, and the possibility that road trips will now include multiple games against a host team.
If the season begins at the target date of Jan. 13 and ends May 8, that's 56 games in 116 days, or one game every 2.07 days. In a normal 82-game season, teams would play a game roughly every 2.28 days.
Can players opt-out?
Players can opt-out without penalty and the deadline to do so is seven days prior to the opening of their team's training camp.
If a player opts out, they will not receive their salary for the season or count towards the salary cap, and their contract will be "tolled" to the following season. That means that a player who opts out would still owe the team that year of play under their contract (an opt-out player with one year left on their deal would still owe that season in 2021-22; an opt-out player with three years left on their contract would have that same term heading into the 2021-22 season).
However, teams will have the option to forgo tolling a contract year, but must make that decision within 30 days of the player's decision to opt-out.
What will the format be for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
The top four teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs. The first two rounds will be best-of-seven series and also be intra-divisional, with the first round pitting the first seed against the fourth, and the second against the third. Each division will produce a winner, at which point the last four teams standing will be re-seeded based on regular season point totals, and again put first place against fourth, and second place against third.
Conferences will not be considered this season, so now it would be possible to have, say, a Toronto-Boston, Colorado-Dallas, Vancover-Vegas, or Montreal-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Final.
It is not yet clear where those final two series would be played, or if a bubble would be required again. Those details will be figured out at a later date and be determined by the safety regulations at the time, but the hope would be that each team would host games in their own arena.
How will the Seattle expansion draft be affected?
In case you've forgotten, a new team is going to join the league for the 2021-22 season, so while GMs are already being forced into difficult decisions because of the pandemic's financial impact on the league, they also have to deal with an impending expansion draft. Everyone will have to give up a player to the Seattle Kraken with the exception of the Vegas Golden Knights, as the 2017 expansion team is exempt.
The rules from the Vegas expansion draft will be identical for Seattle. Every team but Vegas must meet the minimum requirements for players exposed to the Kraken, which was identified as such prior to the pandemic:
i) One defenceman who is a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.
ii) Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.
iii) One goaltender who is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the expiration of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22. If the club elects to make a restricted free agent goaltender available in order to meet this requirement, that goaltender must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the club's protected list.
Because of the shortened 2020-21 season, these games played requirements will be prorated for a 56-game schedule. Players with no-move clauses have to automatically be protected by their teams unless an agreement is made to waive it. The deadline to make that decision is July 13.
All teams except Vegas must submit their protected lists by July 17. Starting on July 18 Seattle will have the opportunity to speak with any RFA or UFA who was left unprotected from the expansion draft, something no other team can do until free agency opens on July 28. Seattle could sign these players prior to the July 21 expansion draft, though that player would then count as the selection from their former team's roster.