TAMPA — The framework for the upcoming NHL season — and the Lightning’s defense of the Stanley Cup — has been approved by the league’s owners and players, making a Jan. 13 start date official.
The regular season will include an abbreviated 56-game schedule with games to be played exclusively within regionally realigned divisions. The Lightning will play in the Central Division with Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Florida, Dallas, Detroit and Nashville, facing each team eight times.
To limit travel and allow the seven Canadian teams to play in one division (named the North Division) without crossing the border, teams will be expected to play only the teams in their division through the second round of the playoffs, which will return to a traditional 16-team format. One team from each division will advance to the semifinals, where teams will be reseeded based on regular-season point totals.
Training camp will begin Jan. 3, giving teams fewer than two weeks to officially prepare for the regular season, though several — including the Lightning — already have opened team facilities for players to begin training. The seven teams that did not make the playoff bubble last season will be able to start training camp Dec. 31. There will be no preseason games. The regular season will run to May 8.
That doesn’t give players and teams much time to get ready, though the league, owners and players have been discussing framework intensely for the past two weeks. Rising coronavirus cases on both sides of the border complicated discussions. The league’s health and safety protocols will be announced in the coming days.
“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play.”
There’s still one hurdle to overcome. While an all-Canadian division prevents those teams from being subject to quarantine rules upon returning from the United States, the league has yet to receive approval in Canada from local health officials to travel from one province to another.
The league’s current plan is to play games in home arenas, understanding that many teams initially will be unable to host fans due to state, provincial and local coronavirus health protocols. But the NHL announced Sunday that it is prepared to play games in one “neutral site” venue in each division if necessary.
Schedules will be announced at a later date, but in another effort to to limit travel, teams will on occasion play consecutive games in the same city in a series format similar to a Major League Baseball schedule.
Other details about the upcoming season, according to TSN:
- Rosters will remain at 23 players, but there will be a six-man taxi squad, which will include a third goaltender.
- A player can opt out of the season if he or a member of his immediate family is considered high risk, but he will not get paid and the club has the option whether to carry over his contract for the next season.
- Other important calendar dates include the trade deadline April 12, the expansion draft July 21, the NHL draft July 23-24 and free agency July 28.
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The NHL initially eyed a Jan. 1 start date, but it took longer to overcome financial hurdles — owners were asking for further compensation from the players — but the season will be played under the agreement made over the summer.
“The Players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and players alike,” said Don Fehr, the NHLPA executive director. “During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”
Now that the plan is official, expect the Lightning to start addressing their salary-cap crunch. The team is currently about $2 million over the $81.5 million flat cap while still trying to re-sign restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak. Roster movement across the league has been slow as teams waited to see what the season would look like.
2020-21 NHL divisions
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red Wings
Tampa Bay Lightning
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights
Toronto Maple Leafs
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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