Nobody really knows what the NHL will look like next season, even NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman by his own admission.
Though Bettman has said the league is targeting a January 1 start date, he has also said that he wants to wait and gather as much information to make informed decisions.
That’s consistent with what the NHL did prior to the season restart in the summer, choosing to play all remaining games in Canada to ensure the safety of players, coaches, and staff. The league was previously thought to be leaning towards picking Las Vegas as one of the hub cities, but chose Edmonton and Toronto instead, after the number of coronavirus cases in Nevada skyrocketed this past June.
The league won’t play next season in a months-long bubble again, as players have been pretty clear about their position on that matter. The bubble plan is also costly for NHL owners, who are bleeding money without the ability to sell tickets to their games.
Depending on local government restrictions, some teams will be allowed to have fans at games next season, albeit at reduced capacity. In Las Vegas, the current restriction would allow 10% of capacity for Golden Knights games.
The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, on the other hand, currently have no restrictions in place, with the Florida governor’s press secretary telling NBC News: “Sports franchises can do as they please, they don’t need clearance from the state.”
Restrictions are generally more strict in Canada, with only 250 fans able to attend Montreal Impact games in Quebec this summer, and that was at an outdoor stadium. Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC hosted their games without fans in attendance.
At this moment, it seems unlikely that Canada’s 14-day quarantine law will be abolished by January, so that will throw a wrench into cross-border travel. The Toronto Blue Jays had to relocate to Buffalo last season for that reason, while the three Canadian MLS teams have temporarily relocated to American cities to finish their seasons.
With seven NHL teams north of the border, the league could decide to have a “Canadian division” next season, which is something Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley spoke about on Wednesday.
“I don’t think that border’s going to be open before January 1st. I really don’t,” Foley said in an interview with KSHP Radio in Las Vegas. “I think they’re going to play in a Canadian division. I don’t think they’re going to cross the border.”
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Foley also said that he doesn’t think the NHL will hold a full 82-game schedule, instead likely opting for a 48- or 56-game season. The Stanley Cup would need to be awarded by late June, the outspoken owner added, because of NBC’s television rights deal with both the NHL and the Olympics in the United States. The Tokyo Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin on July 23, 2021.
If the NHL decides to play games in home arenas, it could split the league in four, with no inter-divisional games to reduce contacts and travel. That might make for a more dull schedule than usual, although it’s not as bad as it might sound, given the shortened season.
When teams played 48 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, no inter-conference games took place.
If the NHL goes ahead with a Canadian division, it would blend three teams from the Eastern Conference (Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Senators) with four Western Conference teams (Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Jets).
For simplicity, the league could place the Canadian Division in the Western Conference, and move three American teams (Minnesota, Chicago, Nashville) to the East, and play a 48-game schedule like they’ve done in lockout-shortened seasons in the past. The three American divisions would therefore play their six of their divisional opponents seven times each, and the other divisional opponent six times. Canadian teams, meanwhile, would play their six divisional opponents eight times each.
The realigned league, could temporarily look like this for the 2020-21 season:
The seven Canadian teams would form a new division playing in the Western Conference, which makes things a little bit awkward for Maple Leafs, Canadiens, and Senators.
- Vancouver Canucks
- Calgary Flames
- Edmonton Oilers
- Winnipeg Jets
- Toronto Maple Leafs*
- Montreal Canadiens*
- Ottawa Senators*
The Pacific Division would keep five of its teams, with the Avalanche, Stars, and Blues moving over from the Central Division.
- Los Angeles Kings
- Anaheim Ducks
- San Jose Sharks
- Vegas Golden Knights
- Arizona Coyotes
- Colorado Avalanche*
- Dallas Stars*
- St. Louis Blues*
The Central Division would move from the West to the East, bringing the Wild, Blackhawks, and Predators with it. Buffalo, Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Florida would all join from the now defunct Atlantic Division, while Columbus would move over from the Metropolitan Division.
- Minnesota Wild*
- Chicago Blackhawks*
- Nashville Predators*
- Buffalo Sabres
- Detroit Red Wings
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Florida Panthers
- Columbus Blue Jackets
The Metropolitan Division would remain mostly intact, with Boston taking Columbus’ spot for geographic purposes.
- New York Rangers
- New York Islanders
- New Jersey Devils
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Washington Capitals
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Boston Bruins*
Here’s how the reimagined divisional alignment would look geographically:
The caveat for all these plans is that we don’t know how quickly scientific advancements will allow things to go back to normal again. If the border opens up midway through its season, perhaps the NHL could change course. That might still be too late to affect the regular season, but it could give the NHL options for the playoffs, which would likely begin at the end of April or May in such a scenario.