NHL teams started to reopen their practice facilities this week in a bid to prepare their stars for the delayed 2020/21 season. The world’s best players have begun informal skating sessions on the ice, and they could head into a training camp on January 3. The confirmed official start date for the NHL 2021 season, but hockey fans expect to see their heroes in action again within a month or so, and these are the five key talking points ahead of the season:
When will the NHL 2021 season finally start?
The NHL set a provisional start date of January 13 for the 2020/21 season. We would normally be deep into the regular season as Christmas approaches, but 2020 has been anything but normal. The 2020 Stanley Cup Finals did not conclude until September 28, and NHL bosses have been trying to thrash out a plan for the new season since then.
First, they must clear a series of major financial hurdles. Players had already agreed to 10% deferred compensation in the summer, but they have been asked to take even heavier pay cuts as franchises face up to significant shortfalls in their revenue. Nothing has officially been agreed, but reports suggest the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have reached a compromise.
Yet there are still further issues to contend with. Covid-19 cases are increasing in the United States and Canada, and it now seems unlikely that all five Canadian provinces that host Canadian teams – Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec – will agree to allow players to circumvent quarantine rules when returning from the U.S.
The season will certainly not feature the usual 82 games when it does begin. Current proposals range from 52 to 56 games at best. Officials are still targeting a mid-January start date, with several measures being considered: temporary realignment, with one of the divisions made up of the seven teams based in Canada; division games only; and games in home arenas, hubs or a combination.
How will Covid-19 impact trades?
It is shaping up to become the most challenging season in history from a trades perspective. A custom divisional realignment could see an all-Canadian division temporarily created in 2020 in order to circumnavigate coronavirus quarantine restrictions, although that is by no means guaranteed.
If there is a divisional realignment, teams in the U.S. would understandably reluctant to make a trade for a player at a Canadian team, as he would have to quarantine for two weeks before he could play. General managers are preparing for an unusually quiet year for in-season moves, which could cause havoc for teams that suffer injuries to key players.
Who are the winners from the offseason?
The Colorado Avalanche were installed as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup in the hockey odds after strengthening the roster with the additions of Brandon Saad and Devon Toews. Colorado only lost Nikita Zadorov, and it looks to be in an extremely strong position ahead of the new season.
The Montreal Canadiens improved their depth by adding Joel Edmundson to their top-four, bringing in Jake Allen, trading for Josh Anderson and signing Tyler Toffoli. The contract for Anderson is a little risky, but the Habs should be in good shape in 2021.
The Edmonton Oilers should also be stronger next season after handing low-risk contracts to Dominik Kahun, Kyle Turris and Tyson Barrie. The jury is still out on the Vegas Golden Knights, who had to clear out Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt to make way for Alex Pietrangelo, but if it works out then they could be the real winners.
Which teams look weaker?
It was a pretty grim offseason for the Predators, who lost three of their top four goalscorers from last season. They were already pretty ineffective in offense, and they have done very little to bolster their roster. The Panthers also look significantly weaker on offense after losing Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov.
Losing Torey Krug could also prove to be a blow for the Boston Bruins. He will be tasked with replacing Pietrangelo, but his departure leaves Boston looking a little light on defense. The future of Zdeno Chara still hangs in the balance, and the Bruins have big holes on their blue line.
Who will win the Stanley Cup?
Many sportsbooks have made the Avs and the Golden Knights joint favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Some have Colorado as the narrow favorite. A lot will depend on whether the conferences change, as we do not yet know which teams will be moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference and vice versa in the event of a Canadian Division being created.
As things stand, Western Conference rivals Vegas and Colorado look like the strongest teams competing for glory next season. Tampa Bay Lightning will aim to follow in the footsteps of the Penguins by becoming just the second team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the turn of the century. They are currently third in the Stanley Cup winner betting, but a large volume of wagers has already been placed on a repeat triumph for the Lightning.
The Bruins will be in contention if they can sort out their defensive issues, while the Flyers built up strong momentum last season and they could maintain an upward curve. Yet there are also some interesting long-shots, such as the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, so we should be in for another open and exciting season when it finally gets underway.
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