The 104th National Hockey League season begins on Wednesday, 13 January, with the 31 teams in North America's top ice hockey competition starting their 2020/21 campaign three months later than usual.
Defending NHL champions Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup on 28 September against the Dallas Stars on neutral ice in Edmonton, after a lengthy stoppage in play due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The late end to the 2019/20 season also meant that the new campaign's regular October start had to be put back to allow for an adequate offseason for the teams that made the Finals.
As the 2019/20 regular season was declared over upon the suspension of play in March, seven of the league's 31 teams will not have played competitive hockey in 10 months before the new season begins. For the first time since the Boston Bruins became first American NHL team in 1924, there will be a division played entirely in Canada due to ongoing travel restrictions; teams are also scheduled to play a shortened season.
Here's what you need to know about the upcoming year.
One-off NHL divisional re-alignment
The new season will not take place in a bubble, unlike last year's season-ending playoffs in three of the major North American sports leagues – the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the NHL itself.
Last season's Stanley Cup Qualifiers and Playoffs were held across two sites in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada; with a 56-game regular season for each team scheduled this year (down from the usual 82), it would not be practical to play in a bubble. Additionally, NHL players indicated that they were against spending an entire season in lockdown at a neutral-site.
In addition, Canada – where seven teams are based – confirmed it would maintain travel restrictions with the United States due to ongoing public health concerns, forcing the league to find a solution. For the first time since 1923, all the Canadian teams will play together in a single North division. This had the knock-on effect of the other 24 teams being re-aligned into three other divisions, the East, Central, and West, with some teams moving away from their traditional divisions and rivals for the season. Each division also had a title name sponsor for the first time ever.
With the temporary change, the playoffs will be altered too. In each division, the top four teams will play until one team is left. The four winners of the divisional play-offs will qualify for the Stanley Cup Semi-finals.
North: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, and Winnipeg Jets
East: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals
Central: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay Lightning (defending champions)
West: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights
NHL teams to watch
All eyes will be on the Lightning to see whether they can successfully defend their title and win a third Stanley Cup. Only one team has retained the crown this century, with the Pittsburgh Penguins winning in 2016 and 2017.
Of note, Tampa Bay are one of the teams affected by the re-alignment, moving from the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division – where they are normally found with teams like Boston, Buffalo, and Toronto – into the Central Division.
This sets up a tantalising divisional rematch with the Stars (the Central Division is normally in the Western Conference) – and ensures only one of last year's finalists can make the last four this time around.
Of the Canadian teams, the Maple Leafs and Oilers had the best records in last year's curtailed regular season. But perhaps the Canucks will have something to say about that. They made the third round of the modified playoffs this past season before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights, and have a strong core of young players ready to make their mark, led by centre Elias Pettersson.
The 2019 Cup champions St Louis Blues have moved out of the Central division and into the West, where they will have to contend with 2018 runners-up Golden Knights and their regular divisional opponents Colorado Avalanche, who have also been shifted. The Blues suffered a somewhat surprising Playoffs elimination to Vancouver last season and will be hoping to make good on that as they seek a second Cup for the franchise.
NHL's outdoor games
The NHL normally organises an annual Winter Classic, a regular-season game held at an outdoor American football or baseball stadium. It has done so every season since 2007/08, when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the Buffalo Bills of the NFL. While this year's game's at the MLB Minnesota Twins' Target Field was postponed to next season, the league is still exploring outdoor games.
Before the details of the season, such as number of games and league alignment, had been agreed, the NHL reportedly asked teams if it wanted to hold some of their home games at outdoor stadiums, where Covid restrictions for fan attendance would be less stringent than indoor arenas. According to The Athletic, at least seven teams told the league they were interested in holding outdoor games with spectators in the stands.
While none of those plans have come to fruition (so far), the NHL is looking at playing two outdoor games without fans on a temporary rink in Nevada at Lake Tahoe's Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course and Resort in February.
Additionally, this season's All-Star Weekend has been postponed by at least a year, but with NHL players expected to play in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, the next All-Star Game may not take place until the 2022/23 season.
Will the new NHL season have fans attending?
The simple answer is… it depends. It seems extremely unlikely fans will attend any games in the Canadian-based North division, at least to start the season.
Local city, state, and provincial restrictions will determine the exact nature of fan attendance for each team in the other three divisions. Any teams allowed to have spectators are likely to face a capacity limit and social distancing regulations for fans, as seen at games in American football's National Football League and last season's MLB World Series.
The Dallas Stars will allow around 5,000 fans in at each home game (of a regular 19,323 capacity), while the Nashville Predators have approval to hold games with up to 15 percent capacity at their arena in January.
New NHL rules and Covid protocols
The NHL is introducing one rule change for the new season, affecting the offside rule. Skaters no longer need to touch the blue line with their skates to be called onside.
Other health and safety protocols relating to Covid-19 have been adopted for this season, bearing in mind the non-bubble scenario for the upcoming year.
Players who test positive will be identified by the league, and will not be allowed back to play until approved by a cardiologist and their team doctor. However, teammates who are close contacts and have no symptoms, or test negative, will not be made to quarantine.
Additionally, bench coaches will face mandatory mask-wearing policies this season.
NHL 2020/21 season calendar
January 13, 2021: Regular season begins (56-game schedule)
February 11: Deadline for signing Restricted Free Agents
March 12: Deadline for signing 2021/22 contract extensions
April 12, 2021; 3 p.m. Eastern time: Trade deadline
May 8: Regular season ends
May 11: Playoffs begin (tentative date)
July 9: Game 7 of Stanley Cup Final, if needed (tentative date)
July 21: NHL Expansion Draft for Seattle Kraken
July 23–24: NHL Entry Draft