NHL

NHL 2021 return to play: Division realignment, Stanley Cup Playoffs dates, trade deadline for shortened season

The NHL’s return to play is officially a go. On Sunday afternoon, the league made a joint announcement with the players’ union stating that it will play a 56-game season starting Jan. 13, 2021. Obviously, that leaves very little time to kick things into gear and this will be far from a normal season, so you may have some questions about how it’s all going to work. 

We don’t have all the answers just yet — the league is expected to reveal additional details in the coming days — but let’s see what we can clear up in the meantime.

What’s the divisional alignment?

We’ve known for some time that the NHL would be looking to temporarily shake up the divisions for this upcoming season. That realignment comes as a method of limiting travel and ensuring that teams will not have to cross the United States-Canada border during the pandemic. As part of the changes, one division will be comprised entirely of the league’s Canadian teams.

Various alignment ideas were proposed, but the NHL is moving forward with the following four divisions for 2021:

North

East

Central

West

What is the schedule going to look like?

While the league hasn’t released an official schedule just yet — that will be coming soon — we do know that every team will only play divisional games this season. Each team in the East, Central and West will play every other team in its division eight times, while the teams in the North division will play every other team in its division nine or 10 times.

We also know some key scheduling dates, courtesy of TSN’s Pierre LeBrun

  • Start of the season: January 13
  • Trade deadline: April 12
  • End of regular season: May 8
  • Last possible day of playoffs: July 15
  • Expansion draft: July 21
  • NHL Draft: July 23-24
  • Start of free agency: July 28

How will the playoffs work?

The league will have a traditional 16-team, best-of-seven playoff format this year, though it will look a bit different thanks to the divisional realignment. The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs and be placed into divisional brackets for the first few rounds of the playoffs (No.1 seed vs. No. 4 seed, No. 2 seed vs. No. 3 seed).

The four teams that advance to the Stanley Cup Semifinal (known as the Conference Final in a normal year) will be seeded by their regular season points total, with the No. 1 vs. No. 4 seed and No. 2 vs. No. 3. 

This format means, in theory, this year’s Stanley Cup Final could feature two teams that typically play in the same conference in a traditional season.

Where will games be played?

While the NHL elected to employ two hub cities (aka “bubble cities”) for its return to play in 2020, the league will allow teams to play games in their home arenas during the upcoming season. The NHL will let individual teams decide if they want to allow fans in the arena, and at least one team (the Dallas Stars) plans on having limited attendance. 

However, if local COVID-19 regulations prevent a team from playing in their home arena, the NHL will provide a “neutral” site for games to take place. 

What about training camp and preseason?

With less than a month to prepare for the start of the season, there won’t be a normal preseason this year. Training camps will officially open on January 3rd. (Teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season will be allowed to start December 31.) Each team will be allowed to have 36 skaters and an unlimited number of goalies attending training camp.

There will be no preseason exhibition games this year.



 

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