The Top-Five Storylines for the 2020-2021 NHL Season
-- by Patrick Day
What does the 2020-2021 NHL season look like?
The 2020-2021 NHL schedule was initially planned to start sometime from December, and then was postponed to sometime after the new year. As of right now, the season is rumored to start around January 1st; however, with the expectation of the teams that did not participate in the bubble to have a head start and the COVID virus still flaring up across North America, the NHL is not setting any date in stone at the moment.
In addition to the Canadian government closing the border, and the NHLPA still negotiating terms for this season, the NHL should be looking to start the season sometime in February. The NHL will break up divisions into four areas (Canadian, West, Central, and East), and will stick within divisional games until threats of the virus settle down.
The NHL is also debating “bubble play” in some of the divisional cities, due to local and state restrictions. The league is also set to finish the season in late July at the latest. With the playoffs being a two-month swing, this will lead to the NHL having five months to complete the season. The NHL will be looking at a 48-game season to a 68-game season based on this window.
Note: As this article is being written, several sources are coming out with January 15th to be the date for starting NHL games, along with a 56-game schedule.
What does a shortened NHL season mean for players, fans, and teams?
The NHL has had success and planning with shorten seasons in the past few years. The divisional idea, with possible bubble and restrictions, will also give the NHL pause for heavy travel and open for back-to-back series. Players have been wary of going in to a “long-term bubble,” so the NHL will look at playing in stretches then giving players time off to head home – i.e. playing for two weeks then giving teams a week to 10 days off.
The minor league system is also slow to start, leaving teams possibly using “taxi squads” or line-up flexibility. Cities will dictate what fan capacity is allowable, so the NHL will probably lean on cities that could generate revenue. The NHL is also wanting to start as soon as possible and have some flex in the schedule for any delays later in the season. The possibility of having short window for play at a time, with extra players, and limited venues may lead to high volumes of action.
What might this mean for sports gamblers? Betting lines and individual player betting could lead to some advantages but may also mean close attention to game day action.
Which players/teams are going to be on the “lookout?”
The volatility of the previous season, the off-season moves, and the outlook for the coming season should lead to a few players and teams able to take advantage of the situation:
Colorado Avalanche – Colorado has lined up their team to be a contender for a few years. They have young defencemen, solid forward lines with several scorers, and two goalies that are comfortable taking a starting role. With a shortened season, Colorado could role out a strong season, high point totals and be favorites in most contests. They will also have some moves to be made around the trade deadline.
Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel – Taylor Hall was the top free agents in the 2020 offseason. He signed a one-year deal with Buffalo team that is trying to rebuild around young stud Jack Eichel. Hall could be dealt at the deadline and bring back a nice haul for Buffalo, or he could help lead the team to a playoff berth in a Eastern Conference that could be weak. If Buffalo has a down season, and Hall is dealt, it could also mean Eichel could look for a trade. Either way, both players should be looking for big seasons and benefit from each other.
Montreal Canadians – Montreal made several moves in the past seasons to ease pressure and build a contender. Carey Price is still a workhorse goalie, but they added veteran Jake Allen, for some protection. Trading Josh Anderson and signing him, adding some smaller pieces, and having some minor league depth, would play for a golden opportunity for the Habs. Couple that with Montreal possibility just playing in the Canadian division, they could be front runners for a good playoff spot.
Tampa Bay Lightning -- Tampa Bay is the defending Stanley Cup champions but have had to make some modifications to their organization due to the stagnant salary cap and certain contracts kicking in. They believe that they still have the team to win again and with a short season, could take advantage for a repeat. However, if they can not be contenders, they could look to try again next season and make moves to prepare for it.
How does this season affect the Seattle Kraken expansion plans and drafts?
Seattle will enter the 2021-2022 season with plenty of opportunities. They have the ability to take bad contracts or select certain players in their expansion draft this coming summer. The salary cap will be around $82 million, meaning teams will not have much payroll flexibility till revenues and fans come back to stadiums.
In addition, the rest of the league has been gearing up for this expansion draft, not wanting to repeat the Las Vegas expansion. Shortened season and teams wanting to have a “win now” window may leverage some of the teams to make some mistakes that Seattle could take advantage of. Look for the trade deadline for teams making deals that could be used for Seattle or teams “going all-in” for a title.
How will the World Juniors’ effect the NHL?
The World Juniors’ is the premier tournament for future prospects along with current NHL players and this year, the tournament will be in Edmonton, Canada. With the Canadian government having tight restrictions for the tournament, replicating the NHL playoff bubble this past summer, NHL teams have to make some choices about what players they allow in the tournament and their potential futures with their respective NHL teams. This may have an impact on rosters in the first month of the NHL season, along with how teams bring up prospects or develop them in European club play.
Several teams have made choices on their prospects (Dach for Chicago, Lafreniere for NY Rangers, Byram for Avalanche), which could have impacts on points, roster flexibility, wins, etc. The tournament may also serve as a reference point for teams to make trades around the deadline. Keep an eye out for any teams with prospects for their junior teams.