The NHL finished the season that was interrupted last year by the pandemic by successfully sequestering a playoff tournament from the outside world, but the league knew the format wouldn't last another term. "We couldn't very well ask the players to put themselves in a bubble for six months," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. Instead, the NHL and players came up with a first for the league: a 56-game, division-based race to a redesigned postseason. And what happens now that the puck is ready to drop will be as captivating as it is unpredictable.
The most significant obstacle to the 2021 season will be COVID-19.
Already, the pandemic has disrupted the NHL's start with Dallas' debut being delayed after an outbreak among players and staff. Pittsburgh and Vancouver also have had to cancel training camp activities, and San Jose relocated its camp to Arizona because of local restrictions. It remains unclear where the Sharks will play their home slate, which begins Feb. 1 after a lengthy start on the road.
Players are being tested daily, and the NHL has implemented protocols to minimize risk — like limiting teams to the arena, practice rink and hotel while on the road — but the league expects it'll have to be flexible.
Fans weren't allowed in the bubble, and most arenas won't have a crowd in 2021.
Arizona, Dallas and Florida are allowing a few thousand people into their arenas, but across the league the sights and sounds of games will be subdued.
Perhaps teams will take a page out of the NHL's playbook from the playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto where the league placed tarps over seats and promoted fan videos on its screens. On TV, crowd noise was piped in.
Teams have been scrambled into four divisions specific to this season, and it shouldn't take long for animosity to develop.
Since play is confined to the division, clubs will face off against each other eight to 10 times — a regularity that will make regular-season games feel like playoff series. So will the fact the schedule is broken down into two-game sets.
Only the top four in each division will make the playoffs and although the road to the Stanley Cup Final remains a best-of-seven through four rounds, teams will continue to square off inside the division until only one is left to move on to the semifinals.
Some rivalries, such as the Battle of Alberta, might not need much stoking, and the all-Canadian division looks like it'll have a unique edge.
But some shuffling has teams that rarely meet on the ice, such as Tampa Bay and Nashville, clashing more than they normally would, and the potential for new hype is enticing.
Familiar faces have moved on to new places.
Longtime Boston captain Zdeno Chara is with Washington. Joe Thornton left San Jose for Toronto. Alex Pietrangelo went from St. Louis to Vegas.
Like always, the NHL went through its usual game of musical chairs in the offseason. But with a condensed camp ahead of a shorter season, fitting in quickly is paramount. Maybe the teams that didn't shake up their rosters fly out of the gates.
The Winter Classic, which the Wild was scheduled to host, and the Stadium Series were scrapped, but the NHL will still get outside — in Lake Tahoe.
In February, Colorado and Vegas will descend on the 18th fairway of the golf course at the Edgewood Tahoe Resort before Philadelphia and Boston take the stage the next day.
Not only does the event keep up the tradition of the NHL playing outside, but the setting is an interesting twist on the backdrop since the NHL usually tabs stadiums for its outdoor excursions.