Folks, we have hockey on the horizon.
The NHL and NHLPA have officially approved a plan to start the 2021 NHL season. The deal puts an end to weeks of back-and-forth between the two sides over the financial ramifications of a shortened season in a pandemic.
“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,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated in a release. “And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly Executive Director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our League back on the ice.”
Here’s what we know about the deal right now.
- First, for the “when.” The season will officially start on January 13th. Teams will jump straight into regular-season hockey, so no exhibition games. The Predators will be able to start training camp as early as January 3rd. However, the seven teams who did NOT play in the bubble this past summer will get a few extra days of camp, starting December 30th.
- Each team will have 56 games scheduled (whether every team actually winds up playing 56 games remains to be seen). All games will be against opponents within the realigned divisions.
- After weeks of flip-flopping teams, the Predators wind up in the same division as the following teams: the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Preds went a combined 8-7-2 against these teams last season. Among those, the Panthers were the only team the Predators failed to record at least one win against.
- The playoffs will go back to its traditional 16-team format. The top four in each division make the postseason, so no wildcards. The first two rounds will feature only inter-division matchups. In round one, the division champ plays the fourth-placed team in the division, the runner-up plays the third-placed, and the winners meet in round two. The four remaining teams will be re-seeded for the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final.
- Players will have the option to opt out of the season. Per Elliotte Friedman, if that happens, the team would not have to pay the player for the season, and this season would not count against their contract term (so if a player signed a one-year deal this past summer and opted out, their one-year deal would begin next season).
- In addition to the main 23-player roster, each team will be able to field a “taxi squad” consisting of four to six additional players. These are essentially “emergency players” who will be able to play immediately in case of roster issues.
Now there’s obviously a lot to unpack here.
One of the biggest unanswered questions is the “where.” The goal, per multiple reports, is to have each team host home games in their own city (like a traditional season). However, based on the NHL’s release, that’s an issue still being resolved. The issues with Canadian provincial health departments have been front-and-center in these discussions, and it’s still unclear whether teams will be able to travel/play in Canada, or if they’ll have to relocate to the United States for the season. However, it’s important to note several U.S. states, like California, are currently enforcing strict rules impacting sporting events as well.
The other big “what if” is about the schedule itself. It’s a safe bet there will be a number of games impacted by COVID cases, travel restrictions, or other issues related to the pandemic. What happens if the season finishes with some teams playing a full 56-game slate, while others play only—say—45 games? Will the league use points percentage for playoff seeding? Will there be a “minimum” number of games a team must play for postseason consideration? These are questions the league will have to answer ahead of time. Otherwise, this will be a massive headache to sort through when April and May rolls around.
As far as the Predators are concerned, this is the fourth version we’ve seen of the realigned Central Division. Dallas being moved back into the division means Nashville is now stuck with both of last season’s Cup finalists. The defending champs, the Lightning, are going to be the instant favorite. However, the Preds do have a history of playing extremely well against Tampa. Nashville’s won six of the last eight matchups; in fact, they haven’t lost in regulation to the Lightning since 2013.
The division’s not a murderer’s row, but it’s not a cakewalk either. Detroit was the only member of the group who missed the expanded playoffs last season, and even they improved over the offseason. You can argue Carolina and Columbus are just two or three pieces short of evolving into top-tier contenders. Florida was a high-scoring team undone by goaltending last year. Even Chicago, trending closer to “dumpster fire” status with each passing whisper of internal strife, is going to be dangerous as long as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are healthy.
There’s a lot to discuss now that there’s hockey in sight, so be sure to check On The Forecheck for daily updates. We’ll have full division previews, predictions, and roster analysis published in the coming days, as well as some insights from our colleagues at the other New Central sites.
In the meantime, yay hockey!