It’s been a long 3-and-a-half month since the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup on Edmonton ice, after defeating the Dallas Stars in 6 games.
Imagine how that sentence would have looked to us this time last year; before everything changed.
We are all well aware of how COVID 19 has turned the planet upside down. The NHL suspended play in mid-March, and then reconvened in the bubble cities of Edmonton, and Toronto, to play a summer Stanley Cup tournament like no other.
It was a roaring success and helped restore a welcome bit of normalcy to our suddenly topsy-turvy lives.
The question was, could the NHL return for a normal 2020-21 82-game regular season?
Try as they might, that became impossible with COVID still raging across North America. While some called for all pro sports leagues to take a hiatus until the autumn, the powers-that-be recognized the morale boost the return of the NHL (and MLB, and NFL, and NBA) provided to those of us who have repeatedly been asked to stay at home.
The league, and the NHL Players Association, put their heads together and worked through a couple of contentious issues, and in December announced a start date of Wednesday, January 13th for the 2021 season. The 104th NHL campaign promises to be one for the ages. Featuring more than a few wrinkles courtesy of COVID.
For starters, it’ll only be a 56-game schedule, and there is some wiggle room built into the calendar for the inevitable postponements due to the virus. Both Major League Baseball, and the National Football League, managed to work their way through such health concerns. The NBA has already had to reschedule a few games. Right out of the gate, the NHL has had to deal with COVID, with a handful of team practices being shut down as a safety precaution.
Second, there is a brand-new look to the league this time around, again, all thanks to the pesky virus.
There are four divisions, as usual, but their makeup has changed considerably. Travel concerns have dictated a shuffling of the division decks.
Two divisions immediately stand out; the Canadian Division and the Group of Death. Or, if you must, the North Division, and the East Division. Most people won’t call them by those names.
Let’s begin in the East. Basically, the old Patrick Division (now the Metropolitan Division) adds the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres. It’s the 50th straight years the Bruins and Sabres are roommates. I’m told that’s an NHL record.
Since only the top four teams from each division qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a couple of good teams will miss the cut. But folks, that would have happened under the old system as well. It’ll just appear more pronounced this time around. Why?
Well, chiefly because of the North Division. The Great White North Division. All seven Canadian NHL franchises will play under that banner, mandated by the travel ban in effect currently between the United States and Canada.
It is the natural solution to the problem, and truth be told, it’s been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception in Canada, and from most hockey fans south of the 49th parallel. Yet there are some dissenting voices who think the league has set this all up, so a Canadian team has a better chance to make the Cup Final. Yeah, that silly narrative is actually reversed in parts of Canada, but that’s another story not worth our time.
Not since Montreal took down Wayne Gretzky and his Kings back in 1993 has a Canadian-based franchise won it all. Many are picking the Toronto Maple Leafs to finally put it all together, and make a run at the big prize. The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. They’ll have no excuses this time around.
Edmonton vs. Calgary 10 times, and that’s before the playoffs? Yup. Because every team will play only in their respective division, so expect the familiarity breeds contempt meter to be pinging at an all-time high.
Staying with the Flames, they have a stretch of four straight games against the Vancouver Canucks, from February 11th through to February 17th. A mini-playoff series mid-season. Remember that you wanted hockey back just in case you find yourself wishing there were more variety in the schedule. This is the way things have to be, in each of the four divisions.
How about in the West Division, where the powerhouses of St. Louis, Vegas, and Colorado reside? The poor California based teams, along with the Wild, and the Coyotes, are probably going to be in a dogfight all season long for the scraps that are fourth place in that grouping.
And talk about a rivalry; are you ready for The Freeway Faceoff, over and over and over again? Of course, you are. From Tuesday, April 20th, until Saturday, May 1st, the Ducks and Kings will play each other five games in-a-row. Probably a good thing most hockey prognosticators don’t have either team making the playoffs because they’ll be sick of each other after that run.
This is wonderful craziness. Most likely (hopefully) only a one-year thing, but decades from now, you’ll lean back in your rocking chair, and regale the grandkids with not-so-tall tales about when the Ducks and Kings went to battle night after night after night.
Every team in all four divisions face similar scheduling, as the league wisely cuts down on travel as much as possible to prevent the spread of the virus we shall not mention by name any further. The Canadian teams in the North Division will have to travel a lot more than most of the American clubs, but that’s just part of the hand we were dealt with by you know what.
There are a lot of new faces in new places this time around, such as Braden Holtby in Vancouver, Craig Anderson in Washington, Mike Hoffman in St. Louis, Joe Thornton in Toronto, Zdeno Chara in Washington, Taylor Hall in Buffalo, Alex Pietrangelo in Vegas, Torey Krug in St. Louis, and Corey Perry in Montreal. Corey Perry in Montreal???
Lots of exciting rookies to drool over, including first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere with the New York Rangers, Kirill Kaprizov with the Minnesota Wild, and Tim Stutzle with the Ottawa Senators.
Barring any necessary schedule adjustments, the regular season wraps up on May 8th.
As mentioned, the top four teams in each division make the post-season cut, then they battle to see which team represents each bracket in the 2021 Semi-Finals. Like it’s 1974 all over again!
Some other changes this winter to look for. The puck, the thing everybody fights over, will now have some fancy electronics contained inside, in an effort to provide teams, and fans, with much more in-depth information aka analytics.
The much-maligned offside rule has been tweaked, and while it may clear up some arguments, no doubt it’ll cause new ones.
Helmets will be adorned with advertising stickers, as the league looks to make up at least some of the lost revenue thanks to no fans being permitted in the vast majority of arenas. That lack of fans situation may change as more of North America gets the vaccine in their arms, but that’ll be a developing situation to keep an eye on.
There are taxi squads this year, meaning teams are permitted to carry around a few extra bodies for that inevitable dance with the virus.
Yes, there is a trade deadline. Mark it down. Monday, April 12th.
Keep in the mind the NHL grows to 32 teams as the newly hatched Seattle Kraken gets to pluck players from rosters when the expansion draft takes place July 21st.
The Entry Draft is set to go on July 23rd and 24th. NHL free agent frenzy begins July 28th.
There will be fancy new uniforms for a number of the teams, as the NHL unveiled the funky reverse retro unis before Christmas. The Colorado Avalanche and their take on the Quebec Nordiques sweater is particularly striking.
There will be a couple of outdoor games, and they are truly outdoors this time around! This may be the one good thing that came out of this crazy season. The NHL will head to Lake Tahoe (straddling the Nevada/California border – the second deepest lake in the United States). The Bruins will clash with the Flyers, while the Avalanche will tangle with the Golden Knights.
Speaking, again, of the Avalanche, they appear to be one of the two favourites to pick up the Stanley Cup when it’s all said and down sometime in early July. Colorado and defending Cup champions Tampa Bay are the two teams mentioned the most by us foolish enough to attempt to predict sports.
Only the most die-hard Dallas Stars’ fan had their team making a run to the Cup Final this past season, so keep that in mind before making your own fearless predictions.
It’s doubtful somebody will score 50 goals in a 56-game season, but then again, since there are strong teams in each of the four divisions, and they get to play much weaker teams a whole bunch of times…well, that may bode well for some goal totals.
And with no time for exhibition (ahem, pre-season) games, the first five games out of the gate on Wednesday count. Meaning the play may not be a head coach’s dream, but for the rest of us, fire wagon hockey may be exactly what the doctor ordered to get us through a winter like no other, as we wait for the world to stop spinning so madly.
SiriusXM will carry all of the games, and SiriusXM NHL Network Radio Channel 91 is your one-stop-shop for the best interviews, analysis, and overall hockey talk. This is our 16th season bringing you front row access to the fastest game on ice, whether that be a temporarily empty arena in Calgary, New York, or Nashville, or a frozen lake in the great Southwest.
And hopefully, we’re back on schedule in early October for the 2021-22 regular season, and the debut of the Seattle Kraken.
This is going to be fun.