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NHL Announces Season to Start on January 13

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56-game season features new divisional alignments & more

Dallas Stars v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

If all goes according to plan, the National Hockey League will begin its next season on January 13, 2021. The league and the NHLPA officially came to an agreement on Sunday that will see teams play in a 56-game season. Although there are undoubtedly some details that still need to be worked out in the coming weeks, it certainly appears that we’ll be seeing NHL hockey sooner rather than later.

Temporary New Divisional Alignments

The league’s 31 teams will be split into four divisions: North (Canada), West, Central and East.

Buffalo will be in the East Division along with Boston, New Jersey, both New York teams, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.

The Central Division will feature Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, Nashville and Tampa Bay.

The West Division includes Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis and Vegas.

Finally, the North Division includes all seven Canadian teams. This is where it gets a little tricky, as these teams may or may not get provincial approval to play at home. The province of Manitoba has given the go-ahead for the Jets to play, but it sounds like British Columbia isn’t as willing when it comes to the Canucks. As such, it’s unclear at this point if some of these teams may have to quickly find US-based homes for the season.

The Schedule

While we don’t have an exact schedule of games, each team is expected to play 56 games, solely against their divisional opponents. For the Sabres, that means eight games against each of the other teams in the East Division. Canadian teams will play each other a little bit more since there are fewer of them in the division.

Non-playoff teams, including the Sabres, can begin training camp on December 31. Other teams begin January 3. The season will end on May 8, with playoffs opening three days later. It’s expected that the top four teams in each division will make the playoffs.

Playoffs will then end by July 15, with the expansion draft for Seattle, the entry draft and free agency to begin in the weeks following.

At this point, it seems unlikely that Sabres fans will be permitted to watch games in-person, but some teams will at least attempt to have fans in the seats. The Dallas Stars are reportedly planning to host about 5,000 fans per game, while the Florida Panthers are also looking to welcome some fans into the arena.

Here’s a breakdown of all the dates you need to know, via CapFriendly:

The Players

This is where things can get interesting. Teams will be allowed 36 skaters and an unlimited number of goalies at training camp, which plays out in the Sabres’ favor. Buffalo, of course, has several goalies in its organization right now, including Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark, Dustin Tokarski, Jonas Johansson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

Once the season begins, teams will be required to carry three goalies at all times, between their roster and a several-player “taxi squad.” This certainly makes sense; if one goalie goes down with injury or illness, they’ll already have another one right there that’s been with the team for the duration.

Of course, players do have the option of not joining their teams this season if they so choose. For non-playoff teams, the deadline is Christmas Eve; for playoff teams, December 27. It’s unclear at this point if players who opt out will still be paid for the year, or if they’ll only be paid if medical staff determines they are at “high-risk.”

More details are also being fleshed out regarding things like players’ living situations and per diems if they have to play at ‘home’ in a city other than their own, which could be the case if, for instance, the Canucks can’t play in BC.

What We Don’t Know

Questions that still need to be answered in the coming weeks include:

  • Will each team be granted local government approval to play in their home city? (The province of Ontario is now reportedly going to lockdown on Christmas Eve for 28 days, which would certainly appear to interfere with the NHL’s plans.)
  • Which players will elect to opt-out?
  • What will the schedule look like?
  • How will things look in the American Hockey League? (Early reports indicate that teams will have to decide by mid-January if they are going to opt-in to the season.)
  • What measures will be in place to keep players, staff, etc. safe?