On Dec. 20, the NHL released their plan to shorten the 2021 regular season from the typical 82 games to 56 as a result of travel complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic — a move that has major implications for how the current divisions are set up.
“The NHL and NHLPA determined that the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border required realignment and the league and the players also sought to minimize team travel as much as possible by shifting to exclusively intradivisional play,” the NHL explained in a press release.
The U.S. teams will be divided into three divisions based on geography: The East, Central and West and — for the first time since an American team entered in the 1924-1925 season in the NHL — an all-Canadian division. With seven Canadian teams who cannot cross the border into the United States, the league has created the North Division to allow them to play in their own arenas.
Hockey is the most popular sport in Canada, so the attention on the division will be “way over the top,” says Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “The Canadian media, all the websites, all the talk will be about the Canadian teams.”
Normally, in the regular season, teams play each other at most four times before a playoff series. This season, each of the eight teams in the U.S. Division will play each other eight times. Teams in the North Division will have to play each other in either nine or ten games which could cause tensions to run high. “Playing each other more often creates that rivalry and hatred for the other team,” said Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano.
The U.S. East Division has the least amount of travel among the four divisions. Sidney Crosby, a captain for the Pittsburgh Penguins — who will be playing in the East Division — noted that this could increase the rivalry aspect of the league.
NHL rivalries will certainly be on full display, as the schedule is mostly composed of back-to-back games. As Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse adds, “there are going to be a lot of situations where you play teams and there will be some strained relationships from one night to the next.”
New York Rangers left wing Chris Kreider expects “almost a playoff-style approach” to the season. When the playoffs do arrive, the format will be similar to typical playoff hockey. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be a best-of-seven game series between the top four teams in each division. The remaining four teams will be reseeded based on point totals from the regular season and then play two best-of-seven series to determine the Stanley Cup champion.
New York Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello offered an insightful description on the difficult upcoming season. “We’re going to see a 56-game season, but it’ll be 56 playoff games,” Lamoriello said. “It’s exciting, and I think the rivalries will just raise to a level we haven’t seen in a long, long time.”