The National Hockey League’s Board of Governors has approved the proposed NHL-NHLPA deal that will see a 56-game season played from January 13 to May 8. A regular, four-round postseason will follow, seeing the Stanley Cup Playoffs conclude with trophy presentation no later than July 15, just in time for the beginning of the 2021 Summer Olympic Games.
“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,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a league release. “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. 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.”
The NHL’s Return to Play Committee had been meeting virtually for a number of weeks prior to the resolution of this agreement, putting together the groundwork for the new season. With the league and team owners agreeing to honour the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed this past summer, the attention was shifted from monetary renumeration to the logistics surrounding a shortened season amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.
A variety of changes had to be made in order to accommodate appropriate travel, divisions and venue schedules. The four divisions have been realigned and will be known as the East, Central, West and North divisions for the 2020-21 season. All seven Canadian teams will play out of the North, while mild re-alignment occurred throughout the three other divisions, for this season only.
For now, the NHL is planning for each team to play its home games out of its host city, in its home arena. With no cross-border travel, this allows both the American and Canadian-based teams to stay within their respective countries for the duration of the season. However, the provincial governments of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have yet to sign off on this agreement, stressing the seriousness of the dire COVID-19 situation in each of the provinces.
The Winnipeg Jets are not a team faced with provincial disruption, as governing authorities have already signed off on the NHL’s Return to Play plan. But with the league unable to have four of the seven Canadian teams playing out of their home venues, a North Division bubble may be the resulting action. Conversations with the respective provincial health authorities that have yet to agree will continue this coming week.
Although still aiming to have every game played out of the 31 league arenas, the NHL says “the league will be prepared to play games in one or more ‘neutral site’ venues per division should it become necessary.” Currently, the agreed upon 56-game regular season exclusively played within divisions will see the Canadian teams face each other nine or 10 times apiece. Each team in the East, Central and West divisions will play every team in its division eight times.
With a vast number of players within the league maintaining close family contacts with people who have weakened immune systems, are immunocompromised or high-risk for COVID-19, the NHL is allowing players to opt-out of the 2020-21 season while being paid, if they are considered to “be at substantial risk of developing a serious illness as a result of novel coronavirus”. The league does hold the right to investigate all circumstances surrounding salary, and that all provisions were not intentionally made as a way to “circumvent the CBA for salary cap purposes”. The opt-out deadline is December 24 for non-2020 playoff teams, and December 27 for 2020 playoff participants.
On the topic of money, there are currently 10 NHL clubs sitting over the $81.5 million salary cap. And with the upcoming 2020-21 NHL season tentatively set for a January 13 start date, those teams are all required to fall under that cap in 24 days. All teams are required to carry at least three goaltenders at all times this season, split between the active roster and the four-to-six man taxi squad.
Should an NHL team have to temporarily relocate this season, each player is entitled to a hotel room for themselves and their family, a rental car and parking and a daily per diem allowance. If relocation extends further than 28 days, additional benefits will be negotiated at that point. Players will also be paid per diem while in quarantine (if required) prior to the start of training camp.
There will be zero exhibition games prior to the start of the 2020-21 season. Teams that did not participate in the 24-club play-in qualifying round this summer have a three-day head start on training camp, as those teams will open skates on December 31, while playoff teams will begin training camp on January 3. Training camps will feature 36 skaters per club and an unlimited number of goaltenders.
The top-four teams in each division will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with intradivisional play in the opening two rounds (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3). The four teams that move on to the Conference Finals will be reseeded based on regular season point totals (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3). The top team in each division will make it to the Conference Finals, guaranteeing the berth of a Canadian club in the penultimate playoff round.
A few important dates to remember include the April 12 Trade Deadline, the July 21 Expansion Draft, the July 23/24 NHL Entry Draft and the July 28 opening of Free Agency.
Although 31 teams make up the National Hockey League, fans of Canadian clubs will only need to focus on the seven teams based out of Canadian cities. Now suiting up nine or 10 times against each of the country’s representative squads, the 2020-21 NHL season will most certainly carry long-lost feelings of Original Six reminiscence, where teams faced off upwards of 14 times against one another. The NHL does plan to return to its ‘typical’ season layout for the 2021-22 season, with opening night coming sometime in October.