Let’s begin with the obvious: The National Hockey League’s owners and players appear eager to play a 2021 season. The outline of such a season appears to be locked in: a roughly 56-game regular season will begin around Jan. 15, and the Stanley Cup winner will be crowned in late July.
The abbreviated season also would include a one-time realignment of teams, primarily to cut down on extended (and expensive) travel but also to reduce potential exposure to coronavirus. The realignment would be for 2021 only.
The economic details could doom the plan; but if the season happens, here’s a possible breakdown of divisions (listed in order of how I believe the teams would finish):
CANADA: Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa: With the U.S. and Canadian border still closed (can you blame Canada, by the way?), a roughly 2,800 mile/4,500 kilometer division includes only the seven Canadian-based teams. As they stand, five teams weave in and out of being good enough to get within sniffing distance of the Stanley Cup before heading to the golf course. Montreal seems determined to frustrate its fan base, and then there’s Ottawa.
EAST: Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Buffalo, New Jersey: I’m only half joking when I suggest these 8 teams could play the entire regular season without ever stepping on an airplane. For now, Philadelphia and Boston appear to teams of today, but Washington and Pittsburgh might be past their time. The Islanders could inch up. Buffalo and New Jersey aren’t ready to make a dent among this group.
CENTRAL: Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Carolina, Columbus, Florida, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit: Another less than perfect combination of teams that requires merging current Eastern and Western conference squads. On the ice, there are two potential Stanley Cup champions at the top, with Carolina lurking. Columbus and Florida often underperform. The back of the division doesn’t appear all that ominous, which might allow Tampa Bay to earn the most points in the regular season.
WEST: Colorado, Vegas, Dallas, Arizona, Minnesota, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles: With the exception of Dallas and Minnesota, the combination of teams is compact, and there’s intriguing potential for multiple outdoor games. The top three teams could be really good, especially if Colorado takes the presumed next step to greatness. The remaining five teams range from good enough to pull off one playoff upset to bad.
Let’s presume the league’s 31 teams are grouped as suggested above. (Carolina and Pittsburgh could flip divisions, but it makes more sense to place them where they are.) What would happen once the regular season ends?
Let’s take our tale a step further and scope out how the playoffs might look.
The most practical option is for the divisional alignments to continue in the first two rounds. For sake of argument, let’s say that happens and that my projected division winners advance.
That would mean the final four teams are Toronto, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Colorado.
At this point, I’d base the semifinals on team points. If that’s the case, then let’s imagine top-seeded Tampa Bay playing fourth-seeded Toronto and second-seeded Colorado playing third-seeded Philadelphia.
The plan outlined above is speculative, and it might not be the arrangement agreed to by the league’s management and players. But it does offer a reasonable blueprint to get a shortened 2021 season from start to finish.
What are your thoughts? Look for the reply box below!