After months of planning and conjecture, it has finally been revealed that the National Hockey League (NHL) will return on Wednesday 13 January, 2021. The decision provides clarity to organisations across the league and gives prospective Seattle Kraken fans a shot in the arm ahead of the expansion draft in the summer.
As the world’s premier hockey competition creeps towards the start of a new season, there are still plenty of unanswered questions about what will go down in 2021. The primary area of concern in Boston is whether or not the Bruins will re-sign legendary defenceman Zdeno Chara.
The 43-year-old is still an unrestricted free agent (UFA) and, in a recent Zoom meeting with reporters, team president Cam Neely said Chara’s future is still being “flushed out.” The 6”9’ Slovak has captained the Bruins since 2006, it is difficult to imagine where he might land – if not at TD Garden – in 2021.
It seems inconceivable that team and player will be able to find the sweet spot
Back in November, it was suggested that Chara could move north of the border to long-time divisional rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 1,553-game NHLer would be the perfect addition to Kyle Dubas’ roster and, at the right price, no GM could dismiss signing Chara out-of-hand. However, given Toronto’s cap situation, it seems inconceivable that team and player will be able to find the sweet spot.
Chara’s future aside, there is still plenty going on in the Great White North. For the first time in NHL history, the league’s Canadian franchises will compete in a unified ‘Northern’ division. The switch, made somewhat begrudgingly, is designed to reduce the amount of cross-border play throughout the regular season.
Fittingly, the Maple Leafs are among the main beneficiaries of the change. The new Canadian division is certainly weaker than the Metropolitan Division they have temporarily departed, which could make their path to the post-season less complicated. Provisionally, here’s how the divisions stack up:
- East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
- Central: Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay
- West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas
- North: Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg
However, if the NHL is unable to come to an agreement regarding cross-border play, Canadian teams may be relocated south of the border. In the event of migration to the U.S. further realignment would be required and the North Division would be axed.
As the pandemic continues to rage across the United States, the league was forced to find a schedule solution that satisfied the desires of sponsors, players and teams. Gary Bettman, aware that Covid-19 is likely to cause postponements in 2021, was keen to shrink the regular-season so halted fixtures could be fulfilled at a later date. In the battle over season length, the commissioner appears to have won out – the 2021 NHL campaign of 56 games.
With opening night in mind, teams will be relieved to hear that training camp opens on 3 January, although the seven non-playoff teams are permitted to return on New Year’s Eve. With only 10 days to prepare for the new season, it’s likely players will take a while to get up to speed through January.
Teams must submit their expansion draft protection lists on 17 July
There are other important dates to keep in mind. The deadline to sign restricted free agents (RFA) falls on 11 February while contract extensions for 2021/22 must be signed by 12 March, the trade deadline arrives a month later. Finally, the Stanley Cup Final is slated to end on 9 July.
The excitement, however, doesn’t end there. Teams must submit their expansion draft protection lists on 17 July. Players not protected will be eligible for selection by the Seattle Kraken four days later. The NHL Draft will begin on 23 July, with free agency set to open five days later.
Let the games begin.