Winners and Losers of the NHL's Return-to-Play Plan
As they say on Saturday Night Live, "Let's do that hockey."
The NHL's board of governors approved the proposed return-to-play agreement between the league and the NHL Players' Association on Sunday. A 56-game regular season will begin Jan. 13 and conclude May 8, with the Stanley Cup Playoffs going through the summer.
The hope is to return to a normal hockey calendar for the 2021-22 season, and coronavirus vaccines should help. But with the pandemic still raging throughout the country and much of the world, the NHL and NHLPA have acknowledged that some flexibility will be needed in the coming days as players report to their clubs and quarantine ahead of training camp.
The NHL has yet to release full health protocols, transition rules and roster limitations, but it intends to do so over the coming days. Fans will not be allowed in most stadiums to start the season, but the league has not ruled out allowing fans into arenas later in the season.
"The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion," commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play."
This season will be unlike any we have seen. In an attempt to cut down on travel, teams have been realigned for the season with four divisions based on region. Teams in the East, Central and West Divisions will play each other eight times, and teams in the North Division, which consists of only the seven Canadian teams, will play each other nine or 10 times.
Some teams won't even begin the season in their home cities. The San Jose Sharks will join their NFL counterpart, the San Francisco 49ers, in Arizona for training camp, because of Santa Clara County's ban on contact sports.
So, with that in mind, here are some initial winners and losers of the new agreement.
Winners: Carolina Hurricanes
The upstart Hurricanes have been knocking on the door of the NHL's top tier for two years. But the Metropolitan Division has been the toughest in hockey in recent seasons. They made a splash in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, making it to the Eastern Conference Final, and had hoped that the playoff experience would fuel them for another deep run in 2020, but the bubble tournament groupings did Carolina no favors.
For the 2020-21 season, the 'Canes have landed in the weaker Central Division, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and the two Stanley Cup Final teams from 2020, the Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stars-Lightning games will be fun, but that's an entirely different storyline. The Red Wings are bad and the Blackhawks aren't expected to be very good either. Since the top four teams from each division will qualify for the postseason, the Hurricanes will look to be one of six teams vying for four spots in this mashup of Midwestern and Southeastern teams.
The better the Hurricanes are, the better it is for hockey.
Winners: Cap-Strapped Teams
This season, the NHL has instituted a hard cap of $81.5 million, per TSN's Frank Seravalli. This is already problematic for a handful of teams, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, but it could be even more problematic if rosters expand from 23 players to 25 as some have speculated. However, the taxi squad system could allow for some maneuvering in order for teams to stay under the cap.
If a player is on the taxi squad, the cap hit is the equivalent to them playing in the minor leagues, which allows teams to bury cap hits by placing players on the taxi squad. According to Seravalli, taxi squad transactions would function like normal American Hockey League transactions when it comes to cap hits. If a player is sent to the taxi squad, he won't have to leave town but his cap hit will come off the books. Teams can only bury $1.075 million, which prevents them from burying larger salaries.
Basically, this means teams can assign some players—mostly likely ones on entry-level contracts—to the taxi squad on days off in paper transactions to be able to get under the cap.
However, the rules of this need some clarification, which the NHL promises it will do in the coming days. But as it stands, teams like the Lightning and Islanders can greatly benefit from the taxi squad.
Winner: The League
The league had a target start date of Jan. 1, and although it wasn't able to meet it, it is going to be close. The fact that it got a deal done with only minimal public squabbling is beneficial for the long-term stability of the league. The NHL didn't have to drastically push back the start date because of arguments with the players' association.
If it has to cancel the season, it won't be because of disagreements between the players and the league, it will be because of the pandemic.
Bettman has made several blunders throughout his term as commissioner, but he avoided a big one this time.
"The players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and players alike," said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr in a statement. "During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much-needed entertainment as the players return to the ice."
Losers: The East Division
The East Division is absolutely stacked. There will be no easy nights in a division that consists of perennial contenders like the Islanders, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Plus, the New York Rangers should improve with the addition of 2020 first overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere.
That leaves the rebuilding Devils facing a steep uphill battle. The Sabres are desperately trying to move past a dismal stretch in franchise history, and they could do so if winger Taylor Hall plays like he did in 2017-18, when he won the Hart Trophy with the Devils, but it's not going to be easy.
It's going to be an absolute war in this division. At least two playoff-caliber teams will not make the playoffs.
Losers: The North Division
The North Division still has hurdles to clear with the respective provincial health authorities in Canada, according to Seravalli. There are concerns about traveling to and from the provinces. The Toronto Raptors were forced to relocate to Tampa this season in the NBA, but the NHL clearly thought its teams could avoid a similar fate by creating an all-Canadian division.
If the Canadian teams are forced to play south of the border, Toronto Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner is hoping to play somewhere warm. But if they are able to play in Canada, that division doesn't come without its complications. It could create some interesting scenarios when it comes to the trade deadline.
The country has a strict quarantine rule in place for residents, and the border has been closed for non-essential travel since March. Even during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, families of players outside of Canada were unable to join players in the bubble. The country was able to achieve some COVID-19 mitigation over the summer but has so far been unable to avoid a second wave of its own.
Teams have historically been hesitant to trade for players within their own division, but if the quarantine mandate remains in place through the April 12 trade deadline, you have to wonder if it will be worth it to trade for a player out of the division. A team could trade for a scoring winger in an attempt to chase a playoff spot, but it's not ideal if he can't score goals for two weeks while quarantining.
There are several intriguing storylines involving the North Division to watch for as training camps open and as the season unfolds.
Losers: Prospects on the Bubble
Training camps will open on Dec. 31 for the seven teams that missed the bubble tournament and on Jan. 3 for the others. Something had to give with such an abbreviated training period, and that something was preseason games.
One of the biggest changes to the season is the elimination of preseason games. Veteran players and reporters alike complain every year about the duration of the preseason and the amount of preseason games, so this is a welcome change for many.
But for those who do not have secure roster spots, it means fewer chances to prove themselves. Sure, there will be scrimmages and game atmospheres will be replicated as best they can, but there is a difference between a 20-year-old prospect scoring on an AHL goalie and scoring on a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie. Preseason games are key evaluation times for young prospects and veteran minor leaguers on two-way contracts.
There will be other opportunities for this category of players to earn roster spots. The taxi squad players will practice with the NHL teams and are allowed to participate in team activities. The AHL will begin its season on Feb. 5. We don't quite know what the AHL season will look like just yet, but there is a desire to keep that partnership in place this season in order for organizations to continue developing talent, AHL President Scott Howson told The Athletic earlier this month.
However, the lack of preseason games could be the difference between some players starting the season in the NHL and some getting sent back to their junior teams.