The NHL will kick off the start of 2021 season on Wednesday more than three months after successfully awarding the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the midst of a pandemic that saw 24 teams enter a playoff bubble that would last for nearly two months.
The 2019-2020 regular season was first paused on March 12. For months, Commissioner Gary Bettman couldn’t say for sure if the entire season would be scrapped or if there was a contingency plan in place that would allow the league to at least play for the cup.
After months of uncertainty, hockey returned on Aug. 1 with a unique 24-team tournament format that would see 12 teams from each conference isolate in Edmonton and Toronto. There was still no guarantee if the league would be able to pull it off but on Sept. 28 the Lightning bested the Dallas Stars 2-0 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals and the season that almost wasn’t, finally came to a close.
Now, months after negotiating between the league and the players’ union and planning out the safest way for the season to be played, hockey makes its return but in a very different way.
Playing in a bubble would prove too difficult at this stage. The season has been shortened from 82 games to 56. Teams will only play in their newly realigned divisions as a result of travel restrictions.
The seven Canadian teams, the North Division, will play each opponent nine or 10 times while the three other divisions in the U.S. will play each divisional opponent eight times. The top four teams in each division will advance to the playoffs.
The pressure is on under this new format but some teams will surely struggle after being off the ice for nearly 10 months.
Here’s a brief look at each team going into the new season.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his winning goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets with teammates William Nylander (88) and Kasperi Kapanen (24) during overtime of an NHL hockey playoff game Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Toronto. (AP)
The North Division is arguably the most stacked division in the league with six of its seven members having made the playoffs last season.
The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers will hash it out in the Battle of Alberta 10 times this season while Toronto Maple Leafs star forward Auston Matthews looks to hoist the cup for a franchise that is one season away from tying the league’s longest drought without a cup.
With so many star-studded names in the net, including Winnipeg Jets’s Connor Hellebuyck and 2018 Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby, the Canadian offenses will have their work cut out of them.
2019-20 record: 36-27-7
Divisional finish: 4th Pacific
2019-20 record: 37-25-9
Divisional finish: 2nd Pacific
2019-20 record: 31-31-9
Divisional finish: 5th Atlantic
2019-20 record: 25-34-12
Divisional finish: 7th Atlantic
2019-20 record: 36-25-9
Divisional finish: 3rd Atlantic
2019-20 record: 36-27-6
Divisional finish: 3rd Pacific
2019-20 record: 37-28-6
Divisional finish: 5th Central
Vegas Golden Knights’ Shea Theodore (27) celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with teammates Reilly Smith (19), Jonathan Marchessault (81) and Max Pacioretty (67) during the third period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta. (AP)
The West Division is made up of two extremes: two teams who have collectively won three Stanley Cups in the last 10 years and three teams who have never held the cup in league history.
Despite being one of those teams to never have their name etched into the cup, the Vegas Golden Knights will present themselves as one of the biggest challenges, having made it to the cup finals in the first year as a franchise and most recently losing to the Stars in the Western Conference Finals.
The St. Louis Blues will likely land one of the top four spots in the division while the Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings will have to avoid sinking to the bottom.
2019-20 record: 29-33-9
Divisional finish: 6th Pacific
2019-20 record: 33-29-8
Divisional finish: 5th Pacific
2019-20 record: 42-20-8
Divisional finish: 2nd Central
2019-20 record: 29-35-6
Divisional finish: 7th Pacific
2019-20 record: 35-27-7
Divisional finish: 6th Central
2019-20 record: 29-36-5
Divisional finish: 8th Pacific
2019-20 record: 42-19-10
Divisional finish: 1st Central
2019-20 record: 39-24-8
Divisional finish: 1st Pacific
Tampa Bay Lightning players celebrate after defeating the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup in Edmonton, Alberta, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. (AP)
The Dallas Stars will have at least eight chances to hash it out with the Tampa Bay Lightning this season after the new realignment put the Stanley Cup Final teams in the same division for the regular season.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks will likely battle it out for the final two playoff spots while the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers will be challenged to make an impact with the condensed schedule.
2019-20 record: 38-25-5
Divisional finish: 4th Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 32-30-8
Divisional finish: 7th Central
2019-20 record: 33-22-15
Divisional finish: 5th Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 37-24-8
Divisional finish: 3rd Central
2019-20 record: 17-49-5
Divisional finish: 8th Atlantic
2019-20 record: 35-26-8
Divisional finish: 4th Atlantic
2019-20 record: 35-26-8
Divisional finish: 5th Central
2019-20 record: 43-21-6
Divisional finish: 2nd Atlantic
Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron (37) reacts with teammates Brad Marchand (63) Torey Krug (47) and Brandon Carlo (25) after scoring the game-winning goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the second overtime period of an NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoff game in Toronto on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP)
What could easily be renamed the division of rivals, the East Division is the perfect mashup of the Atlantic and Metropolitan teams that is sure to keep fans on the edge of their seats.
With the addition of the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins will be challenged for the top spot while the young but talented New York Rangers will look to redeem themselves after being swept by the Canes in the play-in round of last season’s playoffs.
The East presents no clear top four and will surely come down to the final games.
2019-20 record: 44-14-12
Divisional finish: 1st Atlantic
2019-20 record: 30-31-8
Divisional finish: 6th Atlantic
2019-20 record: 28-29-12
Divisional finish: 8th Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 35-23-10
Divisional finish: 6th Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 37-28-5
Divisional finish: 7th Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 41-21-7
Divisional finish: 2nd Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 40-23-6
Divisional finish: 3rd Metropolitan
2019-20 record: 41-20-8
Divisional finish: 1st Metropolitan