Just over a month ago, when the NHL Draft was about to begin, Gary Bettman announced that the NHL’s target to start the 2020-21 season was on Jan. 1. That is the one constant that remains as the NHL hits a crucial point in plans for the upcoming season.
The target date of New Year’s Day is roughly six weeks away. Teams are going to need a two-week training camp to prepare for the season together, and it has already been discussed that the seven teams that didn’t take part in the 24-team tournament over the summer will get an extra week.
So the next two weeks are crucial in discussions for next season, if Jan. 1 is going to be a realistic start date. The NHL certainly is facing some pressure. They spend their season competing with the NBA, which has already announced a Dec. 22 start date that will allow for Christmas Day games.
So what do we know about how the 2020-21 season could look? Here is where things stand at the moment.
There are three key areas that have already been discussed and rumored when it comes to how the league will look. For one, while Bettman had constantly said the goal was a full 82-game season, you can fully expect a shortened season.
How many games will it be? It seems like there is a consensus that it will be at least 48 – after all, the NHL has already executed a 48-game schedule in lockout-shortened seasons and as recently as 2012-13. However, there is obviously a goal to play more games than that. The NHL has drafted plans to play anywhere between 48 and 60 games, and it’s still not out of the question that they try to get near 70 games completed.
The key to this is allowing for room for possible postponements due to COVID-19. There have been college football, NFL and MLB games that were cancelled, postponed, or moved back a couple of days as teams dealt with potential cases within their facilities. If you were to have a 48 or 60-game season, you would have roughly six-to-seven months to complete the NHL season, including the playoffs.
While Jan. 1 is the target, there is the possibility that the NHL could start a week or two later than that if needed. There is also a reported target date to complete the season, believed to be July 15 to line up with the start of the Olympics just over a week later.
Another factor that is seemingly going to be a given with the upcoming season is the one-time realignment of divisions to allow for limited travel among teams. Bettman does not want to change the entire structure of the league permanently, but was willing to accommodate these unusual circumstances for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs – with the Top 12 teams qualifying – and will again for the 2020-21 season.
In the Flyers case, expect a healthy dose of traditional divisional rivals like Pittsburgh, both the New York Islanders and New York Rangers, and the Washington Capitals. But make room for teams like the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, who will likely join that division.
There will even be some crossover between teams in the Eastern and Western Conference. One such example, given the conditions and stipulations of the Canadian border, is an All-Canadian division that would include Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver.
So how will games work? For one, with realigned divisions and limited travel, you will likely see a lot of games looking like miniature playoff series where a team travels to an opposing city – take the Penguins traveling to Philadelphia to face the Flyers – for multiple games over the period of a few days, similar to series in baseball. This idea has been floated as a way to limit travel even further.
Of course, there is the burning question of fan involvement. It certainly seems like, at least for the start of the season, games will be played in empty buildings. One thing that the NHL seems to be leaning toward is the possibility that teams would play in their home arena as the home team.
There also appears to be one common goal for Bettman and the NHL – complete this season in a timely manner so that the 2021-22 season, which will feature a new expansion in the Seattle Kraken, begins on time and can run a full 82-game schedule.
All of this is on the table and discussions will continue in the coming weeks. The NHL and NHLPA had a briefing on Thursday to review some ideas, but no formal proposal was made yet. That could change soon as the league starts to put some of these ideas in motion, knowing full-well their target date is rapidly approaching.
Everything is also subject to change. COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly as well, and that could shift the entire dynamic of what the NHL – and any other league for that matter – have planned. Stay tuned, as things could start moving in a hurry after a lengthy six weeks following the end of the 2019-20 season.