The NHL and NHLPA officially reached an agreement on a 56-game 2020-21 season starting on Jan. 13. The NHL laid out how the season and divisions are expected to work, while also acknowledging that COVID may force the league to be “flexible.”
Backing up previous reports, the NHL estimated that the 2020-21 season will include a 16-team playoff, with the Stanley Cup being awarded in “mid-July.” The regular season is set to conclude on May 8, while reports indicate that free agency will kick in on July 28.
(It’s unclear if the NHL settled all of the issues regarding playing in Canada, however.)
“The NHL 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,” Gary Bettman said in the 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. 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.”
In addition to laying out the 2020-21 plan, the league also expressed a hope to return to a typical 82-game format for 2021-22.
Division realignment, other elements of 2020-21 NHL season plan
As expected, the NHL realigned its four divisions, including an all-Canadian division (“The North”).
The NHL shared key details about how the 2020-21 NHL season will play out, including that teams will only play against other teams in their division.
Broadly, this is how the schedule works out, and also the playoff format. The NHL also shared details about possibly being open to playing in front of fans at home arenas … eventually.
- Teams in the East, Central, and West divisions will face each other eight times. Meanwhile, in the North (all-Canadian) division, the seven teams will face other divisional rivals either nine or 10 times.
- Breaking from the more complicated wild-card formats, the 2020-21 NHL regular season’s 16 playoff teams will simply boil down to the top four teams in each division.
- From there, the top seed in each division faces the fourth seed, while the second faces the third. The winners face off in the second round, and then things could get especially interesting:
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 20, 2020
In that press release, the NHL notes its approach to home games:
It is the current plan to play games in the home arenas of participating teams while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans. But depending on prevailing conditions, the NHL will be prepared to play games in one or more “neutral site” venues per division should it become necessary.
Speaking of teams playing in front of fans, the Dallas Stars seem keen on that, for one:
The Stars will have fans for home games at the American Airlines Center this season, Stars CEO and president Brad Alberts said. Final capacity still to be finalized but could be around 5,000.
— Matthew DeFranks (@MDeFranks) December 20, 2020