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Your NHL FAQ for the 2021 season

Hockey returns tonight! Here’s what to expect as the league returns to the ice for the first time without a bubble in almost a year.

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning holds the Stanley Cup above his head during the 2020 Stanley Cup Champion rally on September 30, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

It’s the 2021 NHL season! It’s here! So… what’s happening again?

There’s no Winter Classic, no All-Star Game... and perhaps worst of all for a league where 50% of revenue is from tickets and arena dollars, no fans in most places.

If your favorite team is out of market, it’s likely you won’t get to see them this season. And there’s still a possibility we’re going to finish the season in a bubble anyway. But for now, we get hockey on TV and the best players in the world competing for the best trophy in sports. Let’s not do too much complaining.

The Tampa Bay Lightning still have the Cup, and they’re second choice to repeat at +700, but the favorites at DraftKings Sportsbook are the Colorado Avalanche at +650. And you’ll be spared this season from the annoying Detroit Red Wings fan you know at work unless they’re referencing octopi or the Russian Five, because they’re 300-1 to win it all. And that’s probably generous.

So what’s going to happen this season, and how’s it going to work? We hope to answer all your questions about the 2021 NHL season below.

Are we getting games in arenas with fans and the horn after scores and that dumb goal song they play in Chicago?

Not exactly. While the games will be played in home rinks, fans won’t be permitted in most arenas despite what the weirdo owner on the Ottawa Senators said. The Florida Panthers are going to allow up to 5,000 fans at games, which is probably what the size of their arena should be when there isn’t a global pandemic anyway.

Most NHL regular seasons are 82 games, this one is 56. Normally you play every team at least once, usually twice, and those in your conference three to five times. But this year you’ll only play the seven other teams in your newly-aligned division eight times each. In Canada, you’ll play six other teams nine or ten times each.

Also you’ll see a lot of back-to-backs with two teams playing in the same arena on consecutive days, or twice-in-three-nights, to help limit travel as much as possible.

There’s new divisions?

Indeed. There are 31 NHL teams (until the Seattle Kraken make it 32 next season), and this year there will be a temporary realignment. We will have three divisions in the East, Central, and West, and then a North Division that will contain only the Canadian teams.

Here’s who is playing who. If your favorite team isn’t in the column with the city you live in below, they aren’t coming. Which is fine, because you probably can’t go to the game anyway.

This is just a one-off, so theoretically once we all have a vaccine in our arms, we’ll be back to normal NHL alignments and schedules next season.

In most years, teams cross the US-Canadian border dozens of times. That won’t happen this year as Canada’s federal government requires a 14-day quarantine once you enter the country. This format keeps the American teams in America and vice versa.

Because the league is hemorrhaging money, they also sold the naming rights to the new divisions. So it’s not the West Division, It’s the Honda West Division, MassMutual East, Discover Central, and Scotia North (it’s a bank). I feel cringey just typing this. Jack Adams and Lester Patrick are spinning in their graves.

Also you’ll see corporate ads on player helmets for the first time. We’re getting closer to NHL players looking like NASCAR drivers, but when you claim you’re down a billion in revenue, I guess it makes sense.

So when are all the new dates for important days on the hockey calendar? I need to know when to set my Twitter to Greg Wyshynski alerts for trades!

The trade deadline is April 12 at 3 p.m., and the season ends on May 8.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are scheduled to start May 11, with the Final to end no later than July 9. This is of course flexible because there’s a global pandemic.

Why are the Canadian teams even playing? They haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 28 years. Don’t they know they’re an inferior hockey country, as the World Juniors proved yet again last week?

I don’t need Bob and Doug McKenzie coming after me. Stop asking troll questions.

So you’re playing the same teams over and over again. Does that mean we’re getting more fighting?

Probably! Asking teams that are cooped up in quarantines all day to face each other seven or eight times in less than 115 days is a recipe for chippiness and taking liberties. Fighting in the NHL hit its nadir last season, down to 0.18 scraps per game. We’ll take the over on that number this season.

The playoffs will still be the playoffs though, right? That’s the best part of hockey!

For the most part, yes. You’ve still got to win four best-of-seven series to lift the Cup; it’s just how you’ll get there and who you’ll play is a bit different.

The top four teams in each division make the playoffs, and then the first two rounds of the playoffs are intra-division. That means no wildcards, and no reseeding of teams once the playoffs start. No. 1 vs. No. 4, No. 2 vs. No. 3. in each division.

Once we have our division winners, home ice is based on point total during the regular season despite the fact there’s no inter-divisional play. So if you’re a really good team in a really bad division, there’s a great chance you can get home ice in the playoffs. Basically, congrats to the Colorado Avalanche on the extra home games.

So since there’s only seven teams in the Canada Division, they get an unfair advantage. It’s a real shame the league has to rig it so they can at least get to a conference final again.

Will you stop trolling Canada!? They’re lovely people and are probably the second-best hockey country in North America. If they haven’t pulled my dual citizenship by the end of this column, I will continue to root for them to improve in this sport. I think their problem is they just need to care about it more.

So this is going to be a massive COVID-19 problem and we’re going to be canceling games left and right, correct?

It seems that way! Dallas has already postponed the start of its season because 17 members of the organization tested positive, and Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Vancouver have already canceled practices. Just like Major League Baseball and the NBA, this seems pretty dumb, but it might actually work for the Canadian teams because of the somewhat stricter protocols north of the 49th parallel.

Also the players can only get housekeeping in their hotel if they’re staying for three days or more, and there’s no talking in the hotel elevators. How can you hoard shampoo bottles and towels this way or awkwardly discuss the weather on the way to practice?

So what happens when a player gets COVID?

It depends on if they’re in Canada or the US. In Canada, there can be up to a 14-day mandatory quarantine even for a false positive, and all players are required to download the nation’s app to help with contact tracing. But in most cases, it’ll be at least 10 days all by yourself if you test positive. You won’t be able to return until you pass two tests and show no symptoms.

Why don’t they just go back in a bubble?

That’s probably what’s going to happen eventually, and the league has reserved the right to move divisional play into four bubbles, but they’re trying it this way first. With the late season, it’s possible players and staff could be vaccinated mid-playoffs.

Who’s gonna win?

We’ll ride with the chalk here. The Lightning are still a preposterous roster even without the injured Nikita Kucherov (at least for the regular season), and have goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to clean up any and all mistakes. Colorado will be the most fun young team to watch in hockey, and a seven-game Final between the once-young-guns champions and the new-young-guns led by Nathan MacKinnon would be phenomenal theater. A preposterous amount of skill on one rink.

But it’s hockey, and these things never work out according to plan. And that’s what makes the sport so exciting if not exactly just. And if there’s one thing we do know, it’s this:

The team from the Scotia North Division probably isn’t going home with the hardware.