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Delayed NHL season starts this week

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Puck drops on January 13th

 

Delayed NHL season starts next week

On September 28th Tampa Bay Lightning lifted their second Stanley Cup. Almost as soon as delayed the 2019-20 NHL season ended all eyes turned to 2020-21.  Edmonton and Toronto had been used as bubbles for the playoffs after the season was reduced due to Covid-19. At the beginning of October fans were already asking how a new season would work. Cross border travel between Canada and the USA and and the fluid situation regarding Covid-19 restrictions were particularly concerning. As mitigation a reduced 56 game format for the regular season has been introduced and new divisions created. Limited numbers of fans may be admitted into some venues. The puck drops on the new season with Pittsburgh Penguins @ Philadelphia Flyers the opening game.

 

Provinces agree to Covid-19 protocols

With the season opener only days away hurdles to NHL play were removed on Thursday and Friday. The Ontario government announced both the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs could play in their home cities. Debate in the hockey mad province had raged over the delay in announcing a positive outcome to talks between the league and legislators. Another Canadian Province, Manitoba home province of the Winnipeg Jets agreed a return to play on Friday. This was widely expected to be a formality but fans were beginning to become concerned. Revised protocols preventing the spread of Covid-19 in each market have been discussed and agreed between the NHL and health officials.

 

Reduced schedule and more rivalries

With the start of the season delayed from October to January the league needed to reduce the number of games played. The 82 game regular season was reduced to 56. All regular season games will be played in division with a temporary shuffle of the teams making up each league. The new divisions were designed to reduce travelling and the chances of Covid-19 transmission. Travel from the USA into Canada has been restricted by the Canadian government. Traditional divisional rivals have been separated but new ones should be built especially in the all Canadian North Division. First and second round playoff games will also be within division. Stanley Cup playoffs between the winning team for each division will decide the title.

 

Where can I watch the NHL?

In the UK BT Sport, Premier Sports and their subsidiary Free Sports hold the rights to live games. As the name suggests Free Sports is a free service and can be downloaded or watched via your TV. At least one game per week will be featured on Free Sports with others on the subscription Premier Sports. Game highlights are usually available on the NHL website. Games mostly take place in the evening or into the night UK time. Occasionally matches start at 6pm UK time in the matinee slot over in North America. On Saturday January 16th Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils are live on Freesports at 6pm.

 

Player movement

For a league with 50% of income coming from ticket sales Covid-19 was a disaster. Salaries players could obtain during the free agency period fell. The league froze the salary cap amount teams had available to sign players and those outside the big hockey markets saw a dramatic decrease in revenue. Many experienced players have so far found it impossible to find a new team despite very strong seasons in the past. For example despite coming in the top 50 points scorers last season Mike Hoffman is unsigned.

Gnarled veterans Joe Thornton and Zdeno Chara have both signed for new teams with salaries of less than a million dollars. Some big moves were made during the free agency period with defenceman Alex Pietrangelo the biggest name to move from the St Louis Blues to the Vegas Golden Knights.  Goaltenders were a hot commodity on the market with Jacob Markstrom making the highest profile move from the Vancouver Canucks to Calgary Flames.

Some of the teams remain over the salary cap. In the next few days it will be interesting to see what deals will be made with other teams to reduce salary. Some very serviceable players with good contracts could be on the move.  Tampa Bay Lightning are currently over ten million above the cap with Washington Capitals and St Louis Blues not far behind. Some other teams have plenty of money to spend so could be a possible trade partner. Mostly these are rebuilding teams so would be looking for something extra from the seller for example a young developing player or draft pick. These clubs include Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Redwings, Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils.

 

What to expect in 2021

A delayed season will have given the players time to recover from injury and recharge their batteries. With the salary cap expected to remain stagnant for a number of years jobs are on the line like never before. Reducing the number of games is likely to see an increase in intensity. Sorter training camps, a lack of exhibition and practice matches could initially make defending more difficult. In the short term at least expect more shots, goals and penalties as the teams get accustomed to being back on the ice.

Another interesting aspect will be player health. What happens if games need to be cancelled or rescheduled due to Covid-19 outbreaks? Will the team bubbles be compromised? From the experience of other sports it is unlikely the whole schedule will be completed without any problems. Within the tight time scale the NHL have and the increased number of times in the division teams meet this could be disastrous.

Financially some of the teams are struggling to exist. Newer teams in non traditional hockey markets like Arizona and Florida have always made a loss. Owners have continued to subsidise their teams in the hope of making money later. The financial downturn which has hit the world hard may have reduced their capacity to continue along this path. Expect talk about sales or relocation to intensify before the end of the season.

 

Who to look out for this season

Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers

Fast, skilful and elusive  Connor McDavid is the biggest superstar in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers centre can do everything anyone else can do and a little bit more. He also forms a formidable double act with last year’s Most Valuable Player winner Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers have two phenomenal young players who are great to watch and never give defences and easy shift on the ice.  Their race to top the scoring charts should be highlight of the season.

 

Joe Thornton Toronto Maple Leafs

Ontario native Joe Thornton joins the world’s most intense hockey market in Toronto on a single year contract. Jumbo Joe who is now 41 has been a top player in the NHL throughout the 21st century. He ranks 14th overall in the most points accumulated over a career and is recognised as one of the greatest passers of all time. In Toronto Thornton is believed to be playing on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner who are both 23. Will he be able to help the two young superstars achieve their potential or is it a year too far?

Tampa Bay Lightning

On paper Tampa Bay have the strongest overall roster in the NHL. The reining champions have an excellent team and solid backups. The question is can they find the same chemistry with a slightly tweaked roster? Losing the point a game forward Nikita Kucherov for the whole of the regular season will also be a blow but the Lightning should have adequate cover.

 

Alexis Lafreniere

New York Rangers selected  left wing Lafreniere as the number one pick in the 2020 draft. He comes into a Rangers team which despite a disappointing 2019-20 season has some strong performers. As he is projected to start with a limited role on the third line how will the Canadian transition to the NHL?

Matt Murray

Ottawa took a big chance on Matt Murray. The goaltender had endured a poor couple of years after a brilliant start to his NHL career. In 2016, despite only making his NHL debut in April, Murray led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup. He repeated the feat in 2017 but then his numbers started dipping. Eventually Murray lost his position as first choice netminder and with an expiring contract was traded to Ottawa. During the off season the Senators signed him to a four year contract. If Murray can return to the form of 2017 the deal will be a steal if not the goalie could be a liability for the team.

The development of young players

Players who are signed for NHL teams but not ready for the NHL are usually released to play in lower leagues by their teams. The most important phase of player development is between the ages of 18 and 22. As the feeder leagues the AHL and ECHL not definitely restarting in 2021 the immediate futures of these players is uncertain. How will the NHL clubs guide the development of their future stars in North America without meaningful games to play in?

 

We hope you enjoyed the article ‘Delayed NHL season starts next week.’ Who do you think will win the Stanley Cup in 2021? Let us know!

 

 

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I enjoy watching and writing about sport. I’m also a runner, a coach and a million other things. I’m involved in athletics, follow the NHL and NFL and support Durham County Cricket Club and Sunderland A.F.C. My photograph is a smiling Mark on a fabulous day for a run at the top of Dale Head in the Lake District.

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