The NHL hasn’t released any formal plans or start date for the 2021 season yet. It seems they are still targeting January 1 as the start date, but the AHL’s start date of February 4 seems to throw some complications to that plan. What we can assume is the NHL won’t announce a start date without a full plan on how the season will operate. With that, the NHL is entertaining some temporary realignment plans.
The NHL is looking at a temporary hubs as part of this realignment plan. Per Bettman, it would mean 10-12 days inside a temporary hub without traveling, then go home for a week. There would be appropriate testing protocols set up with the hubs and travel.
This makes sense, since there may be international travel restrictions between the US and Canada. This holds especially true as the US can’t seem to contain the virus, with 200,000 new cases confirmed just yesterday. It seems that regional bubbles would be used to limit the exposure and travel of the teams.
Given this, it seems the NHL would want to limit cross country travel. This means mostly divisional and conference games. This gets dicey with the international travel across the Canadian border. Moving all seven Canadian teams to the US for the season doesn’t seem to be a realistic option.
This was assumed with a later start date, but the NHL is considering a reduced schedule for the 2021 season as well. If we assume the usual 48-game season that follows a lockout and a January start date –the NHL is used to this already– then we may get mostly divisional games.
This would be interesting, as teams would be looking at chunks of 6-7 games within those mini-bubbles before a week “off.” That’s about 8 stints in the bubble, with each stint plus break lasting three weeks. That’s a 24 week regular season, taking us from January 1 through around the middle of June. The playoffs would need to be finished by August to account for the Olympics and NBC’s TV schedule.
Playing 48 games within the division may get boring, but it could also mean some great rivalry renewals. Incidents within games won’t get forgotten so quickly. We may see tempers and emotions boil over within the bubble and likely carrying over between bubbles.
The important thing to note is that this is a fluid situation. Things change regularly, and as we’ve seen with the NFL and MLB, there will be cancellations and postponements. The league will need to reschedule games, perhaps in chunks. The plan for temporary realignment across the NHL might help alleviate these concerns, but it’s still a risk.
The NHL may also, at some point, allow some fans in the stands. We don’t know what is coming with this Pfizer vaccine, and we don’t know what new federal leadership in the US will bring. But we do know that the COVID situation has changed almost weekly since its onset nine months ago. The NHL may start in bubbles with no fans and end with a normal playoffs with full travel and full arenas.
We are all waiting on some positive news from the league regarding the return to play plans. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m cautiously optimistic we will have a lot of hockey to look forward to once this awful year ends.