2021 NHL Season
(Steven M. Falk/Philadelphia Inquirer)

In a normal world, the 2020-2021 NHL season would be beginning its third month of play right now. But as fall turns to winter, the world’s most popular winter sport finds itself still on the sideline. With COVID-19 delaying the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by three months, there was no way the NHL would maintain a normal starting date. However, hockey fans are no doubt starting to get anxious with no official announcement made for the NHL’s next campaign. Especially since the NBA set to start a 72-game season on December 22.

Thankfully, due to the work of insiders like Elliotte Friedman and Pierre LeBrun, combined with some good, old common sense, we have at least some understanding about what the National Hockey League’s 102nd season might look like. There is still plenty of fluctuation in the league’s future, but here’s what we know right now.

How Long Will the Season Be?

A normal NHL season lasts 82 games, starting in early October and ending in early April; the playoffs conclude in early-mid June. The 2019-20 season started on October 2nd and was supposed to end on April 4th; with the league shutting down the season on March 12th, teams played between 68 to 71 games. The league began an extended playoffs on August 1st, which ended on September 28th.

Let’s assume for now the NHL re-opens its doors sometime in January. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), there is already a precedent for such a season. Due to a lockout, the 2012-13 NHL season began on January 19th, with the regular season ending on April 28th. The same scenario also played out in the 1994-1995 season, which began on January 20th and ended on May 3rd. The 2013 playoffs began on April 30th, with the 1995 tournament starting on May 6th; both finished on June 24th.

In both of those shortened regular seasons, teams played 48 games. The 2020-21 season will likely contain between 48 to 60 games. In comparison, Major League Baseball played 60 games this season, or about 37% of a normal 162-game season. Thirty-seven percent of an 82-game season would only be about 30 games, and while baseball did not bring fans back until the NLCS and World Series, the NHL may be more fortunate in that aspect. This comes despite the league’s repeated preference to play a full 82-game schedule to recoup as much revenue as possible. There just is not enough time for a full or close to full season to take place, even with no All-Star week (and probably no bye week) to account for. 

Why is that? Well, while the league’s starting date is still unknown, there’s a pretty clear date the NHL wants to finish the season by: July 23rd. The Olympics begin on July 23rd, which NBC also broadcasts. The former certainly takes precedence over the latter to most Americans, including NBC. Overlap between the two would be a nightmare for the league, especially in the States.

What Will the Schedule Look Like?

Typically, teams play against every team in the NHL at least twice (at least once at home and the road), naturally seeing teams in their division the most (four-five times a year). Like baseball, that may change this season. While the NBA still plans to have each of their teams face every opponent at least twice, the NHL’s path towards doing so is much complicated by the US-Canada border.

While basketball has just one Canadian team (the Raptors), the NHL has seven. The Canadian government already forced the Blue Jays and Raptors to find new 2020 homes to play American opponents. In the immediate future, there’s no way the NHL can bring teams across the border like in a normal season.

As a result, the NHL could follow the MLB’s model of strictly playing teams in their geographic division. Baseball limited teams to play against teams in their division and their opposite league’s division counterpart (i.e. NL East teams only played fellow NL East teams and AL East teams). The NHL very well may limit teams to only playing against their own division in order to maintain competitive balance between the Canadian and American teams.

Another possibility is following the NBA’s two-part scheduling system. This year, the NBA plans to release the first half (December 22 – March 4) of its schedule in the coming days, with the second half to be unveiled in the future. Considering the fluxutality of the virus and state/country restrictions, that certainly seems like a smart decision.

What Will the Playoffs Look Like?

Unlike NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who has already expanded the NBA’s 2021 Playoffs after the bubble opened his eyes, Gary Bettman seems against expanding the playoffs any further. The NHL’s bubble playoffs consisted of 24 teams, eight more than normal. The top four teams in each conference played a three-game round robin to determine seeding. Meanwhile, the five through twelve seeds played in a best-of-five qualifier round. Teams then separated by conference (they have been separated by division ever since 2013) and played out the rest of the playoffs like normal.

The NHL will likely return to a divisional format for 2021, in part because the Eastern/Western conference designation may disappear this season. If that happens, how teams make the playoffs may slightly change. Ever since 2014, the top three teams in each division and two wild cards from each conference have made the playoffs. In 2021, things could very well get more arbitrary, and just the top four teams from each division may earn a shot at the Stanley Cup.

How Will the Divisions Look?

Usually, the seven Canadian teams are sprinkled throughout the four divisions based on geography. However, as mentioned above, Canadian teams may not be able to cross the border for part or all of the coming season. As a result, it is extremely likely that the league will shift to an all-Canadian division for the first time. Therefore, the other divisions also need realigning. According to ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, here is what the 2020-21 NHL divisions could look like.

(2020 playoff teams according on normal standings/rules in bold)

Canada: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets

East: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals

Central: Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning

West: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights

Of course, this is not set in stone; teams like the Penguins and Hurricanes or Blues and Wild could easily change spots. But this gives a general overview of what each team’s main competition for a playoff spot might look like, improving some club’s hopes while putting a dent in others.

How Much Will Players be Paid?

This is the question that answers why we don’t at least have a plan for the upcoming season.

At the end of the day, the NHL is a business. And like just about every business in 2020, the NHL lost a lot of money. A lot of it, in fact. The league is looking into just about every way possible to recoup money this season and in the future. That means getting fans back in the stands whenever and wherever possible, especially because the NHL is much more dependent on gate revenue than the NBA. That could start to change with the league’s TV deal set to expire at the end of this next season.

However, players salaries are currently the biggest concern. As part of the new CBA signed in the summer, players agreed to defer 10 percent of their salaries for the upcoming season. However, recent reports from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggest the league may approach the players about deferring even more money. The league reportedly offered the players two options: the first would raise deferment and escrow significantly for this season only, the second would raise deferment this year and escrow four to six seasons down the line. Neither are palatable for the players.

Wait a second, you may be wondering, what’s this escrow thing? In short, players and the league split hockey related revenue (HRR) exactly 50-50. The problem is that the players make more than the league does, so there needs to be a mechanic to balance the books.

That’s what escrow is. In order to ensure this split, every season, players put a small portion of their salaries into escrow. Depending on how much money the league makes, the players get some of that back at season’s end.

In case you don’t know, players absolutely hate escrow. Because of COVID’s havoc on the league’s finances, escrow is set at a record twenty percent for the 2020-21 season. There is a set plan for that to gradually lower depending on how quickly the league fills its financial hole.

Can Fans Attend Games?

Well, the coronavirus spreads much easier indoors, and hockey is unfortunately an indoor sport, so that’s certainly a challenge. The league’s marquee outdoor regular season event, the 2021 Winter Classic (which was scheduled to be in Minnesota) is cancelled. But the vast majority, if not all, of the league’s games will take place indoors. Can fans safely attend indoor sports before a vaccine is widely distributed? That’s the million dollar question.

The good news for the NHL is that The Athletic’s Shams Charania recently reported the NBA, which faces similar challenges, anticipates five to ten teams will begin the year with some fan attendance. Both leagues will have to abide by local and federal restrictions, which vary by state, and in the NHL’s case, country. It seems extremely unlikely Canadian teams (four of which were top ten in attendance last year) would have fans to start. But perhaps teams like last year’s finalists Tampa Bay and Dallas could start the year with partial capacity crowds. For what it’s worth, the Stars held watch parties at American Airlines Center during the Stanley Cup FInal.

Will There Even Be a Season?

Thankfully, this is the question I feel the most confident about answering. Yes, there are some owners that reportedly want to consider not playing this season, for fear of losing even more money. And while that is a legitimate concern, it would be shocking if the NHL sits out until fall 2020 2020.

For starters, as previously mentioned, the league’s TV contract expires after this season. But only if some sort of season is actually played. The next TV deal, whether it’s a reunion with NBC or/and with another network like ESPN, will be a major boon for the league’s revenue.

Additionally, sitting out for a calendar year or so could be devastating to the league’s popularity, which isn’t exactly it’s biggest strong suit. Under Bettman, the NHL has lost part of a season twice (1994-1995, 2012-2013) and a full season once (2004-2005) to lockouts, and the league’s popularity has suffered each time. Despite disappointing TV ratings, the league’s widely successful return to play built up goodwill for itself and Bettman. Long delay or cancellation of the 2020-21 season with other leagues playing would erase all of that and then some.

Despite all of the questions the league faces about finances, divisions, playoffs, fans, and of course, health, it would be a huge mistake for the 2020-21 NHL season not to take place (assuming it can do so safely, of course). When and how it resumes are still very much up for debate. But eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later, the league figures to drop the puck once again.

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