Well into our second month without NHL games now, hockey fans are clamoring for some NHL action, and with any luck, they’ll be seeing it by New Years’ Day.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has spoken multiple times now about the possibility of a January 1st start date for the upcoming season, but as we inch closer to that date without any plan formally in place, you have to wonder how realistic that target really is. Of course, the biggest obstacle for the league right now is the current surge in cases of COVID-19 across both the United States and Canada.
The Canada-US border is still closed until November 21st, after the closure was once again extended last month. However, with cases on the rise, and the deadline being only one week away, it’s incredibly likely that this closure will be extended again very soon. Even if we see a dramatic improvement in the number of cases in both countries, it’s doubtful that we’ll see the border open before January or perhaps even February.
So, where does that leave the binational National Hockey League? With 24 US-based teams and only seven in Canada, the vast majority of matchups for Canadian teams during any given season are against American opponents. However, that could be changing this upcoming season, as rumours continue to float around about an all-Canadian division for the 2021 NHL season.
Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton are all currently in the NHL’s Pacific division and typically play each other about four or five times per season. The same can be said for Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, who account for a good portion of the Atlantic division. On the outside looking in are the Winnipeg Jets, who are presently joined by six US-based teams in the Central division, and consequently play their fellow Canadian opponents less often during a regular 82-game season.
If the Canadian division ends up going ahead, we’ll be treated to more frequent matchups between Pacific and Atlantic teams, as well as between the Jets and the other six Canadian clubs. However, with January 1st as the target date, it’s unlikely the NHL will manage to squeeze in an entire 82-game schedule, which typically runs from October to April.
The NHL does have experience planning a shortened season, though, having played a 48-game campaign in 2013 due to a CBA-related lockdown. That season ran from January 19th to April 28th, so with a two-week head start, the NHL should be able to pencil in another half a dozen games or so, and still finish relatively on time. With travel also being less of a concern, the NHL has suggested that teams play short series against one another, similar to how the MLB operates. This would allow teams to play two or three games in one city over a shorter period of time, without wasting as much time on the road.
At this point, it’s still all up in the air, however. The NHL has also tabled the idea of short-term hubs, where teams would play in one location for 10 to 12 days before moving on to the next one. Essentially, this would be a miniature version of what we saw in Edmonton and Toronto this past summer for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
No matter how it all shakes out, what seems to be almost a given at this point is that we will see an all-Canadian division. It’s entirely possible that the teams branch out and play US-based teams later on in the season if restrictions lift, but we’ll be seeing a lot of all-Canadian action this season regardless.
Now, just for fun, let’s see how an all-Canadian division with all-Canadian matchups would’ve turned out last season. Obviously, the sample size will be incredibly small, and this won’t take into account any roster moves made by the clubs during the offseason, but let’s take a look anyway.
Despite the fact that the Vancouver Canucks went the farthest of any Canadian team last year in the playoffs, making it to game seven of the Western Conference semifinals, they had a dreadful regular season record against the other six Canadian clubs. Winnipeg played a handful fewer games than every other team against their Canadian counterparts but using points-percentage as the measuring stick for success, they sit atop.
Of course, there’s no telling what will really happen this coming season and one person’s guess as is good as next’s. The NHL is running out of time to set everything in motion if they do want to accomplish that January 1st start date.
For now we’ll sit back and wait, and imagine the possibilities.