What we know about 2020-21 NHL season: Key dates, playoff format, more

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After Sunday’s announcements, we know how the NHL plans to run its 56-game, 2020-21 season. As of Monday, some details (including a Jan. 13 start) are official, while the NHL may confirm other reports about the 2020-21 season as the week goes on. Of course, COVID can throw a wrench in virtually all of these plans, so even the most official blueprints boast traces of “tentative.”

So, there are plenty of facets of the 2020-21 NHL season that can change.

Here’s a sprawling list of things we know — many confirmed by the NHL, some still unofficial — as of Wednesday night.

Key dates for 2020-21 NHL season: Jan. 13 start, free agency, expansion, more

Here are the dates, which are now official from the NHL. Interestingly, the league noted some 2020-21 NHL season dates that are “subject to adjustment.” (With COVID, aren’t they all, really?)

Dec. 31 – Training camps open for seven teams that did not participate in the resumption of play for the 2019-20 season (Anaheim, Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Ottawa, San Jose)

Jan. 3 – Training camps open for the remaining 24 teams

Jan. 13 – 2020-21 regular season begins

April 12 – Trade deadline (3 p.m. ET)

May 8 – Last day of regular season

*May 11 – Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

*July 9 – Last possible day of Stanley Cup Final

June 2 – NHL Draft Lottery

July 17 – Deadline for Protection Lists for Expansion Draft (5 p.m. ET)

July 21 – Expansion Draft for Seattle Kraken (8 p.m. ET)

July 23 – Round 1 of NHL Draft

July 24 – Rounds 2-7 of NHL Draft

July 28 – Restricted Free Agent/Unrestricted Free Agent signing period begins (12 p.m. ET)

*subject to adjustment

If everything goes smoothly, it could still be a really tight squeeze. Frighteningly, COVID could make a tough squeeze even tougher. Hopefully the league hashed out some sound contingency plans.

Division realignment, how playoffs work during 2020-21 NHL season

As expected, the NHL realigned its four divisions, including an all-Canadian division (“The North”).

2020-21 NHL divisions NHL officially rolls out plan for 56-game 2020-21 season
via the NHL

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.

  • 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.
  • During the 2020-21 NHL season, the league will break from its wild-card format. Instead, it’s quite simple: the top four teams from each of the four divisions will make up the 16 playoff squads.
  • 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. After the divisional bracketing is taken care of, the four remaining playoff teams will be re-seeded.

This could create some fascinating, one-of-a-kind matchups for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Want specifics? PHT’s Adam Gretz put together power rankings for the top 20 potential 2021 Stanley Cup Final series that can only happen during the 2020-21 NHL season.

Schedules for all 31 NHL teams during 2020-21 season

NHL shares 56-game 2020-21 schedules for all 31 teams season openers
via NHL

Anaheim Ducks

Arizona Coyotes

Boston Bruins

Buffalo Sabres

Calgary Flames

Carolina Hurricanes

Chicago Blackhawks

Colorado Avalanche

Columbus Blue Jackets

Dallas Stars

Detroit Red Wings

Edmonton Oilers

Florida Panthers

Los Angeles Kings

Minnesota Wild

Montreal Canadiens

Nashville Predators

New Jersey Devils

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Ottawa Senators

Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins

San Jose Sharks

St. Louis Blues

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Vancouver Canucks

Vegas Golden Knights

Washington Capitals

Winnipeg Jets

[Related: Notes, takeaways from the NHL schedule releases]

Biggest question lingering: Will teams be able to play in Canada?

When it comes to making all of this work, reaching agreements with health and government officials remains key. It’s the vulcanized rubber elephant in the room, especially with different standards in Canada.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli captured the mood of uncertainty surrounding playing games in Canada. (For those wondering why it’s the “North” Division instead of the Canadian Division? Perhaps it’s because the league must acknowledge the possibility that those seven Canadian teams will instead be playing in America?)

In particular, it’s interesting that the Canadian provinces might present unified standards for play. Via Seravalli:

The provincial health authorities met with the NHL and NHLPA in a group call on Saturday. More discussion will take place early this week, but it is possible that the provinces decide to band together with a group philosophy – presenting a potential all-or-nothing scenario.

If the provincial health authorities do not sign off, the NHL could be forced to move the seven Canadian teams to a hybrid hub in Canada (likely in Edmonton) or south of the border for the season.

Can fans attend home games? That depends on state governments and other factors.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., there could be a wide variety of setups. Some teams may not be able to play in their home arenas. Others could quickly put together fairly large audiences.

Early on, it sounds like the Dallas Stars might push the envelope with as many as 5,000 fans in attendance.

Reports indicate that the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning may also waste little time playing in front of at fans.

Meanwhile, some U.S.-based teams are in flux. Though Doug Wilson hopes that the Sharks can eventually return to Santa Clara, they’re expected to at least hold training camp activities in Arizona.

With uncertainty surrounding COVID — will a vaccine be effective, and accessible, and when? — these situations could end up being very fluid.

Training camps, roster sizes, cap considerations, and more

As the week goes on, the NHL may share more details. Here are some key notes about the 2020-21 NHL season, mostly via reports:

  • The opt-out deadline for players is Dec. 24 (for players of the seven teams that didn’t make the Qualifying Round) and Dec. 27 (for players on the remaining 24 NHL teams).
  • On one hand, players deemed at-risk for COVID can opt-out of the 2020-21 NHL season while still being paid. On the other, the NHL will keep an eye on the situation, in case teams want to use that to circumvent the salary cap. (Both via Frank Seravalli.)
  • Taxi squad setups might help cap-crunched teams ever so slightly. It may help with goalies, in particular, as NHL teams reportedly will need to employ three goalies between their active roster and taxi squad. (Via reporters including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.)
  • As opposed to the normal 10-game deadline, teams will burn a year off of a player’s entry-level contract if they play seven games or more during the 2020-21 NHL season. (Via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.)
  • Also according to Friedman: teams can have rosters of 36 players and “unlimited goalies” during training camps.

COVID protocols for 2020-21 NHL season

For a deeper look, check out Adam Gretz’s post for PHT. Here are some highlights:

  •  Home teams must make their home rink or practice rink available to visiting teams. Visiting teams are not permitted to use rinks owned by third parties. Team practices will also not be open to the public.
  • Players will also only be permitted to go to the rink and hotel on road trips. No other destinations, including bars, restaurants, clubs, etc., will be permitted.
  • During the regular season the NHL will announce the names of players that test positive, but will not do so during training camp when it will simply release league wide numbers.
  • Coaches must wear masks while on the bench.
  • Symptomatic players who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate “until medical clearance is obtained,” and contact tracing will take place. Team doctors will manage situations for symptomatic players who test negative for COVID-19.
  • Read about the more complex processes in Adam Gretz’s post.

Offside rule change for next NHL season

Starting this season, players will no longer have to have their skate in contact with the blue line to remain onside. The blue line now becomes a vertical plane.

From the league:

83.1  Off-side – Players of the attacking team must not precede the puck into the attacking zone.

The position of the player’s skates and not that of his stick shall be the determining factor in all instances in deciding an off-side. A player is off-side when both skates are completely over the leading edge of the blue line involved in the play.

(NEW) – A player is on-side when either of his skates are in contact with the blue line, or on his own side of the line, at the instant the puck completely crosses the leading edge of the blue line. On his own side of the line shall be defined by a “plane” of the blue line which shall extend from the leading edge of the blue line upwards. If a player’s skate has yet to break the “plane” prior to the puck crossing the leading edge, he is deemed to be on-side for the purpose of the off-side rule.

Plenty still to be determined, including free agents

Despite this slew of information, there are still elements that need clarification.

Again, most importantly, NHL teams need to know where they can play, and if fans can attend games. And while signings are picking up, plenty of free agents still need deals. So stay tuned, hockey fans.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

pittsburgh penguins
Jeanine Leech/Getty Images
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”