After weeks of negotiations and posturing, word came out on Friday night that the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Player’s Association has tentatively agreed to a 56-game season for 2021. The news came through mainstream insiders such as Elliotte Friedman at Sportsnet and Frank Seravalli and Pierre LeBrun at TSN. The NHL’s official website has reported the same not that long ago - which is a positive sign for the plan passing on the league’s side. Nothing is official as both the NHL and the NHLPA have to formally approve the plan. However, it is a very positive development.
There are still several details being worked out for the proposed 56-game season. Here is what has been revealed so far:
- The plan is to have a 56-game regular season that will start on January 13, 2021.
- Training camps will open on January 3. The seven teams that did not participate in the NHL’s Return to Play tourney in the Summer - such as the New Jersey Devils - will open their training camps on December 31.
- There will be no exhibition games. The teams will go right into the season after camp.
- All 31 teams will be split up into four divisions. The plan will have an all Canadian division - pending agreement from the five Canadian provinces that have to give approval. Per David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period, four are OK and the fifth still needs to get on board.
- Pagnotta also reported that if the Canadian division happens, then New Jersey’s division will be the Atlantic and they will play the following teams: Buffalo, Boston, the two New York teams, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington.
- All games in the season will be played within the division.
- The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs.
- The first two rounds will also be within the division. This means each division will yield one of the four semifinalists for the Stanley Cup.
- Teams will have a 23-man active NHL roster and $81.5 million salary cap ceiling. The cap remains flat.
- Teams will also have a taxi squad of 4-6 players that can travel and practice with the NHL team. Players on the taxi squad will be payed on their AHL salary and will need to be “called up” to play in NHL games
- There will be “more flexible” emergency recalls.
- Players can opt-out of the season if they or an immediate family member is considered to be “high risk” for the virus. Teams can toll the contract for the season in that case, meaning the contract will carry over to the following season. Players who opt-out will not be paid.
- There will be no proration of player salaries for those that do play.
There is still much to be determined. Scheduling is completely up in the air. If the Canadian provincial governments do not agree to allow the NHL to play games as they have planned, then they may need a kind of “bubble” in Canada or all seven Canadian teams will need to play in the United States - which will require additional re-alignment. Should local and/or state American governments expand restrictions, that could also impact the season. It is not clear how transactions between teams will be handled. It is also unclear how the taxi squads will be managed if or when the American Hockey League has their season start, which would be February 2021 at the earliest. Like a lot of things in sports since March 2020, plenty is subject to change.
Those are details that can be determined over the next few weeks. The major achievement is that there is a detailed enough plan for a regular season that it can be voted on by both the league and the union. Per Friedman, the NHLPA Executive Board supports the plan, which is another positive development. Now the rest of the union membership has to vote on it. The NHL Board of Governors will have their vote on either Sunday or Monday per LeBrun.
I am personally hopeful that an official announcement is made by Monday. Sure, the Devils will get three fewer days than what was originally planned for the non-Return to Play teams. I do not care. Three extra days of camp will not make the Devils significantly better. Head coach Lindy Ruff has been in contact with the players for months now; having only four days of face-time instead of seven is not going to suddenly make the Devils serious contenders for a top-four spot in this division. I am more excited that there will be a season at all and it will be a little bit longer than past lockout-shortened seasons. It may not be not ideal but very little is ideal during this pandemic. I just want Devils hockey to return. The signs are good that we will have Devils hockey returning in 2021.
What this also means is that we should expect to see more activity in the NHL as teams will need to become cap compliant and prepare for a season very soon. There have been a few bits here and there from players being recalled from European loans to Nico Hischier leaving Switzerland to Anthony Duclair getting signed by Florida. Expect more to happen within the league. Assuming this plan passes and nothing else happens that forces further changes to the schedule, the Devils will need to at least sign Jesper Bratt and MacKenzie Blackwood in the next twelve days. Those two not-so-small loose ends will need to be tied up soon. Other teams have more work to do and cap problems to solve; maybe the Devils can help provide some cap answers for those problems. We shall see.
Yes, in just twelve days, we could have the New Jersey Devils start to formally prepare for a NHL season. This is indeed a rapid development even though it is subject to change.
I personally hope the plan passes by both the Player’s Association and the Board of Governors and an official announcement is made for a season. Do you hope for the same? What other details are you interested in being sorted out ahead of the season? Please let me know your answers and feelings (of excitement?) for a NHL season in the comments. Thank you for reading.