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The NHL’s Return to Play Format for 2021 Season Nearly Finalized

2021 NHL Return to Play

2021 NHL Return to Play
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Hockey is back! Well, it’s about to be, anyway. 81 days after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the most unique Stanley Cup Playoffs in league history, the NHL’s return to play plan is made. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the exciting news.

The announcement itself is a major win for hockey fans. With the other all-indoor major sport (NBA) already in preseason play and set to begin their season on December 22, the NHL making its own plan was paramount. The league was able to complete a COVID free playoffs, but it was in tight bubbles away from families. That was barely do-able for two months; there was no way that option could be replicated for five to seven months.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what the 2021 NHL season might look like. With details pouring in like snow in New Jersey this week, here is everything we know about the NHL’s return to play. Let’s start with that none of this becomes officially official until the league’s owners and players association vote on it. The latter votes tonight; the former on Sunday or Monday. But since there aren’t expected to be any hiccups on those fronts, let’s move on to the good stuff.

Where and When?

The 2021 NHL season is expected to begin on January 13. The regular season will last 56 games, eight more than the lockout-shortened 2013 and 1995 seasons (which started on January 18 and 20, respectively). There will be no bubbles; teams will play in their home rinks (local COVID restrictions notwithstanding). The start date for the playoffs isn’t known yet, but it is known that the playoffs will consist of the top four teams from each of the four divisions. The first two rounds will crown a divisional playoff champion, and the four victors will battle it out for the Cup.

Training camps for the seven teams that missed the playoffs start December 31. Everyone else opens their doors on January 3. There will be no pre-season games. The All-Star Game in Florida and Winter Classic in Minnesota have already been canceled; the Stadium Series in Raleigh in February hasn’t been yet. A few weeks ago, reports circulated that several teams, including Anaheim, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles are looking into hosting outdoor games, potentially maximizing fan attendance and revenue. For now, it’s unclear where (if anywhere) fans will be allowed, and if so, how many.

Divide and Conquer

Oh, and the four divisions won’t be the same Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central, and Pacific we’ve seen since the 2013-14 season. Because of the closed US-Canada border, the Canadian teams will all be in their same division. Well, probably. There were rumors earlier this week that health restrictions may force the league to move all seven Canadian clubs to the U.S. Thankfully, those seem to be alleviating themselves. Maybe. Assuming that happens, this is the structure for the upcoming season.

Canadian: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg

East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

Central: Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay

West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas

Divisions matter more than ever in the NHL’s return to play. That’s because teams will likely only be playing games against teams in their division. If that’s the case, each team will face their seven divisional opponents eight times this season. For reference, teams met no more than five times in the 2019-20 original regular season schedule.

Line ‘Em Up

Rosters will also be slightly expanded. Teams will still officially carry 23 players, but accompanying them will be a 4-6 player taxi squad. Players on the taxi squad will be paid full AHL salaries, and all player salaries won’t be prorated. After rumors the owners wanted players to take more financial concessions, the league backed off; the CBA the teams agreed to in the summer will remain intact.

At the end of the day, all that matters is that hockey is coming back. In 24 days, one of highest anticipated puck drops ever will finally take place, pandemic and all. Having an outline of what it will look like makes it seem even closer. The NHL’s return to play should be a great one. Let’s do that hockey, everyone!

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