Everything You Need to Know About the 2021 NHL Season
Welcome to the 2021 NHL season. The divisions have been temporarily realigned, and teams are allowed to put ads on their helmets.
It might be wild pandemic hockey, but it's hockey nonetheless. Many were skeptical that this season would even be possible, but training camps are underway and the 56-game regular season will begin Jan. 13.
But it won't exactly be business as usual.
Teams will be required to adhere to strict social-distancing policies in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Schedules will also look different, with an all-Canadian division playing for the first time because of the U.S.-Canada border closure. A shortened season and new rules will undoubtedly affect the on-ice product.
Here's what to expect when the 2021 NHL season opens.
What Happened to Preseason Games?
Preseason games were axed this year. It's a welcome change for most veterans but potentially detrimental for some of the rookies and role players battling for roster spots. It will be challenging for everyone since preseason exhibition games are typically when forward lines and defensive pairs develop chemistry.
Coaches will attempt to simulate the intensity of games while rolling out various line combinations to see whether they click.
"We're trusting what we know about them," Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said in a Zoom press conference over the weekend. "But at the same time, we're also recognizing that with it being such a short camp, no exhibition games, that the evaluation is ongoing. And once camp breaks, it's going to be ongoing.
"You expect everybody, whether they are in the opening lineup or not, to continue to work and push you ready to take advantage of the opportunity that we know, undoubtedly, will come because you certainly need more players than what you start with on opening night."
Why Do the Divisions Have Different Names?
The NHL is allowing teams to place advertisements on helmets for the first time this season. This was a controversial move for many fans who don't want to see uniforms looking like NASCAR vehicles. But the pandemic decimated pro sports budgets, and the NHL wasn't spared, so it's a way to bring in some extra revenue during a time when many teams are struggling to keep their staff intact.
The league took it a step further when it sold the naming rights for each division:
Scotia NHL North Division (Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets)
Honda NHL West Division (Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights)
Discover NHL Central Division (Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning)
MassMutual NHL East Division (Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals)
For the sake of brevity, it's probably OK to refer to each division by its geographic name, with the exception of the East Division, which should always be referred to as the Bloodbath Division.
Divisions were shuffled for the season in order to cut down on excessive travel. The East Division will be the most difficult but possibly the most entertaining. The all-Canadian division will be well-received in a country where hockey is like a religion.
"I'm looking forward to it," Oilers captain Connor McDavid told reporters at the start of camp. "I think an all-Canadian division's exciting. It's never happened before. You look at some of the rivalries, some of the matchups, I think it can make for a pretty exciting division."
Will Fans Be Allowed at Games?
For the most part, no. The Stars, Coyotes, Panthers and Lightning will allow fans at limited capacity, and other teams will likely reevaluate with their respective local health authorities throughout the season.
But simulating the intensity of games will be key with no fans in the stands.
Packed arenas and loud, raucous crowds fuel the adrenaline that can often push players through tough shifts. While in the postseason bubble, players felt their motivation waned without crowds, with games in empty arenas feeling more like exhibition contests than playoff games.
"There is no way to replicate it," Devils forward Kyle Palmieri said. "That ability to drag guys through the mud, it's something that as a group, you have to find."
Those who went through the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season say they know how to find it, and it's on them to convey the urgency of each game to the younger players in their locker rooms.
"It was a race right from the start," Ducks defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I think that's the most important thing we're trying to communicate here to players who haven't been through that. Yes, it's going to be a grind, but we really can't look at April, we can't look at May and worry about where we're going to be in the standings. Everyone talks in an 82-game season about how games count and how much they matter, but this season they matter more."
Without Fans, Will the Intensity Be the Same?
By the end of the campaign, yes. We won't be missing any of the things we've come to know and love about the NHL, like fights and chirps.
With division-only play, teams will be facing one another eight or nine times throughout the course of the regular season. That means there will be playoff-like series for some, like the Devils and Rangers, who have four straight games against one another in April. If the adrenaline is missing without the fans early in the season, it should be there by the end when the local rivalries have been revived.
"When you go out and win these series, you get to feeling good," Palmieri said. "That kind of feeling is contagious, and it tends to roll momentum into our group."
How Will the Condensed Schedule Affect Play?
The last day of the NHL season is slated for May 8, which means teams will attempt to play 56 games in just under four months. It will be a grind. And it will be interesting to see the impact on the ice in real time.
Listening to coaches and executives from around the league over the past week, it sounds as though teams are expecting to split the workload of their goalies somewhat evenly. In recent years, we've seen a shift toward a 60-40 split workload.
Instead of having a No. 1 and No. 2 goalie, teams are using more of a 1-a and 1-b system. The speed and strength is too great, and the pads have shrunk, so having two quality goalies has proved to be a winning formula.
Now it's a smart formula with a jam-packed schedule and limited travel.
The San Jose Sharks will have veteran Devan Dubnyk and Martin Jones split time as the latter attempts to revive his career. The Devils will be hoping veteran Corey Crawford will complement a young star in Mackenzie Blackwood (though Crawford's continued absence from training camp may see Blackwood thrust into the leading role). Elsewhere in the East Division, the Islanders have a similar system with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.
"I think it's schedule-based and performance-based, but this schedule is condensed," Islanders coach Barry Trotz told reporters on Zoom. "It allows you to do a lot of things because there's not a lot of travel. As much as we want to say the games take a lot out of you—which they do—the travel takes a big piece out of you, especially with the goaltenders. I think with some of the non-travel you're going to have this year, you can use your goaltenders a little bit more."
What Is the League Doing About the Coronavirus?
According to the official league protocol, players, coaches and all personnel have to adhere to strict guidelines at home and on the road. This includes not dining out or dining with people from other households, avoiding public transportation and shopping. When at the facility or interacting with other players, masks or face coverings must be worn.
During training camp, players will remain in the same training groups off the ice, and no more than 10 are allowed to work out in the weight room at a time.
If anyone reports symptoms, they will be required to self-isolate immediately. If a positive test is recorded, they will remain in isolation until medically cleared to return to team activities. The club physician, an infectious disease expert and any other medical personnel involved in treatment have to determine that the individual presents no risk to others.
Positive tests are not being made public during training camp, but they will be reported during the regular season. When training camp comes to an end, the league will reveal the total number of positive tests from that time but will not name anyone specifically.
This is a change from the 2019-20 postseason, when injuries and illnesses were lumped into one category called "unfit to play."
Players must also pass a cardiac screening before returning to play. The long-term effects of the coronavirus are still being studied, but myocarditis can be one of them. The NHL may not always get everything right when it comes to player safety, but keeping out a player whose heart is not able to function properly is a step in the right direction.
What Else Is New?
The NHL has a new offsides rule this season. Similar to a touchdown in football, if a skate crosses the plane of the blue line at the same time the puck crosses the leading edge of the blue line, a player is considered onside.
Teams will also utilize a taxi squad to supplement the active roster this season. This is primarily a way to have a pool of players ready in the event of a positive COVID-19 test, but it also serves as some salary-cap relief for teams struggling to get under the hard, $81.5 million salary cap.
Each taxi squad must consist of a minimum of four players and a maximum of six, and it must include a goalie unless the NHL team is already carrying three goalies on the active roster. Players requiring waivers must pass through before being added to the taxi squad. Players will be able to train with the NHL team but cannot participate in activities with another club, such as one in the American Hockey League or a junior league.
Where Does the AHL Fit into the Season?
The AHL season will start on Feb. 5 with 28 teams after three opted out of the season. The Canadian Hockey League, which consists of the three top junior leagues, will also start on the same date, pending Canadian health regulations.
Four teams will play in different cities this season, with a few joining their parent clubs at their practice facilities. The Binghamton Devils will play in Newark, the Ontario Reign in El Segundo, California, with the Kings, the San Diego Gulls in Irvine, California, with the Ducks and the Providence Bruins in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
This is extremely beneficial for those four teams. It's difficult to shuffle players back and forth from the AHL to the NHL with all of the travel and quarantine restrictions, so these teams will be able to utilize the players in their own backyards.
It's not easy for every team to do, but the Ducks, Kings, Devils, Bruins and Sharks (who are starting the season in Arizona because of health restrictions in Santa Clara County) all have the luxury of being able to temporarily move their AHL affiliates into their home markets.
What Could Go Wrong?
There could be outbreaks among teams. There could be outbreaks among officials. The season could be canceled. As we saw in baseball, some players could get antsy in their hotel rooms on road trips and decide to venture out, breaking protocol.
The NHL does have plans in place to hold teams and players accountable, like fines and loss of draft picks, but it's on each and every member of the 31 teams and their front offices to follow the rules and conduct themselves appropriately.
So much work went into planning and executing this season that no one wants to see it get shut down. The NHL should take what we're learning from the NFL, MLB and NBA and apply it to this season in order to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 and keep players safe.