NHL on NBCSN: Welcome to the 2020-21 season

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The 2020-21 NHL season on NBCSN begins Wednesday night with a triple-header. The Penguins and Flyers kick things off at 5:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Lightning raising their Stanley Cup banner before facing the Blackhawks at 8 p.m. ET. In the final game of the night, the Avalanche host the Blues at 10:30 p.m. ET.

NBCSN LIVESTREAM: Penguins vs. Flyers

NBCSN LIVESTREAM: Blackhawks vs. Lightning

NBCSN LIVESTREAM: Blues vs. Avalanche

2021 NHL REALIGNMENT

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-Canada border closure, the NHL was forced to realign the league for just this 56-game season. There are four divisions — the North, West, Central, and East — with the North featuring all seven Canadian teams.

Here’s how it all looks:

Along with the divisions, the playoff format will also have a different look. The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs, which will feature divisional play. Once we get to the final four there will not be a conference finals. Instead, we will get the Stanley Cup Semifinals and the four teams will be re-seeded depending on their regular season point total. That makes it possible for a Lightning-Golden Knights semifinal or, once we get to the Cup Final, a Bruins-Lightning matchup.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST/NORTH/WEST/CENTRAL]

NEW FACES IN NEW PLACES

NHL Free Agent Frenzy took place in October, and there was plenty of movement. Taylor Hall is now a member of the Sabres. Alex Pietrangelo joined the Golden Knights. Joe Thornton left the Sharks for the Maple Leafs. Braden Holtby is a Canuck. Zdeno Chara is a Capital. Jacob Markstrom is now with the Flames. Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry are now Canadiens. Torey Krug is now with the Blues. Mike Hoffman signed in St. Louis after a training camp tryout. Corey Crawford joined the Devils but later decided to retire. Mikko Koivu moved on to the Blue Jackets. Patrick Marleau is back with the Sharks.

As for trades, the Islanders dealt Devon Toews to the Avalanche; Columbus swapped Josh Anderson for Max Domi; the Penguins moved Matt Murray to the Senators; Patric Hornqvist headed south going from the Penguins to the Panthers; Jake Allen freed up cap space for the Blues by getting dealt to the Canadiens; Eric Staal reunites with Jeff Skinner in Buffalo; Paul Stastny is back in Winnipeg; Brandon Saad is now with the Avs.

In the buyout department, Jack Johnson went from the Penguins to Rangers; Henrik Lundqvist left the Rangers for the Capitals; Kyle Turris goes from Nashville to Edmonton; Bobby Ryan leaves Ottawa for Detroit; Cory Schneider moves from New Jersey to Long Island.

Behind the benches, Lindy Ruff, who was an assistant with the Rangers the last three seasons, takes over in New Jersey, and Peter Laviolette was hired by the Capitals.

[2020-21 NHL ON NBC TV SCHEDULE]

MISSING THE KING, KUCHEROV AND OTHERS

Some unfortunate news was revealed in December that affect two big NHL names. First, Lundqvist announced he is sitting out this NHL season and later underwent heart surgery. Nikita Kucherov decided to undergo hip surgery and will likely miss the regular season.

The Blackhawks will be missing a few key pieces to begin the season. Captain Jonathan Toews is out indefinitely while dealing with an illness that has left him “drained and lethargic.” Sophomore center Kirby Dach will likely return in May after suffering a broken wrist during the World Junior Championship.

Finally, as was the case before the Return to Play in August, NHL players were give the opportunity to opt out of the season. Only Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson chose to do so.

[NHL Power Rankings: Contenders and pretenders for 2020-21 NHL season]

UPDATED NHL SEASON CRITICAL DATES CALENDAR

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

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 change

NEW RULE

A player’s skate will no longer have to be touching the blue line in order to be considered onside.

“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.”

Here’s how the NHL breaks it down:

[MORE: NHL Awards, first coach fired, free agent busts]

SPONSORS, SPONSORS, AND JERSEYS

All 31 teams released “Reverse Retro” jerseys in November, mixing a bit of old and new as a way to help grow revenue for the upcoming season. There were definitely some hits and misses in the crop of new looks.

adidas

Teams will also see sponsor logos on their helmets, with many deals working as a “make good” for those companies who will be affected with no fans in the stands in most rinks.

via NJ Devils

Are you ready for the Scotia NHL North Division, MassMutual NHL East Division, Discover NHL Central Division, and Honda NHL West Division? This season the league has sold sponsorships for all four divisions in an effort to recoup lost revenues due to the pandemic. They say it’s for this season only.

NHL

[2020-21 BOLD PREDICTIONS]

MILESTONES

Alex Ovechkin

• 3 goals away from passing Mike Gartner for seventh
• 12 goals away from passing Phil Esposito for sixth
• 26 goals away from passing Marcel Dionne for fifth
• 36 goals away from passing Brett Hull for fourth.
• 61 goals away from passing Jaromir Jagr for third
• 96 goals away from passing Gordie Howe for second
• 189 goals away from passing Wayne Gretzky for first

• 22 points away from becoming the 35th players to reach 1,300

Patrick Marleau

• 9 games played away from passing Ron Francis for fourth
• 11 games played away from passing Jaromir Jagr for third
• 34 games played away from passing Mark Messier for second
• 45 games played away from passing Gordie Howe for first

Joe Thornton

• 11 assists away from becoming the 14th player to reach 1,100
• 47 assists away from moving into sixth
• 23 points away from passing Paul Coffey for fifth
• 25 points away from passing Mark Recchi for 12th

Marc-Andre Fleury

• 19 wins away to pass Ed Belfour for fifth
• 24 wins away to pass Roberto Luongo for third
• 7 shutouts away to pass Roy Worters for 14th

Barry Trotz

• 26 games coached away from being one of three NHL coaches with 1,700 (Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville)

Opening night coverage begins with a special edition of NHL Live at 5:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN, leading into coverage of Penguins-Flyers. Kathryn Tappen anchors studio coverage throughout the evening with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp as well as NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.