USA TODAY US Edition

NHL hits ice for hard-sell sea­son

- Mike Brehm Sports · College Sports · Ice Hockey · NHL Hockey · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · National Hockey League · Stanley · United States of America · St. Louis, OK · Minnesota · California · Detroit · Sharks · Santa Clara · Lake Tahoe · Las Vegas · Colorado · Philadelphia · Boston Bruins · Boston · Toronto · St. Louis Blues · Vegas Golden Knights · Washington · Vancouver · Henrik Lundqvist · New Jersey · NBC · Seattle · Gary Bettman · Santa Clara County · Newport County A.F.C. · Joe Thornton · Alex Pietrangelo · Braden Holtby · Corey Crawford · Jonathan Toews · Mike Emrick · Mike Milbury

The NHL has had two sea­sons short­ened and an­other can­celed be­cause of la­bor dis­putes. Last sea­son was paused in March be­cause of a pan­demic and even­tu­ally ended in late Septem­ber.

This sea­son the NHL will try to nav­i­gate an­other short­ened sea­son amid a surge in the COVID-19 pan­demic.

If the league can pull it off, a 56game reg­u­lar sea­son will start to­day and end May 8, with the Stan­ley Cup be­ing awarded by July 9.

“We have to be ready to ad­just and adapt to any­thing that may hap­pen,” Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman said in a con­fer­ence call. “We’re go­ing to have to make judg­ments in real time.”

What will be unique about this sea­son. ...

There will be COVID-19 dis­rup­tions: There al­ready have. Last week the NHL an­nounced that six Dal­las Stars play­ers and two staffers tested pos­i­tive for the coro­n­avirus. In­stead of open­ing the sea­son on Thurs­day, the Stars are look­ing at Jan. 19, mean­ing three games will have to be resched­uled. The play­offs were virus-free be­cause they were played in a bub­ble. But this reg­u­lar sea­son will be played at home are­nas, in­creas­ing chances that a player could be ex­posed. Un­like the 2020 play­offs, the NHL will di­vulge the names of play­ers if they test posi

tive dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

The di­vi­sions are re­aligned: The clos­ing of the U.S.-Canada bor­der to non-es­sen­tial travel ne­ces­si­tated the for­ma­tion of an all-Canada divi­sion. That re­quired shuf­fling the other di­vi­sions, mostly based on ge­og­ra­phy, but St. Louis and Min­nesota will play with Cal­i­for­nia teams. Most ri­val­ries were main­tained and the Chicago-De­troit one was re-es­tab­lished. Teams will play solely within their divi­sion, fac­ing each op­po­nent eight times in the U.S. di­vi­sions and nine to 10 times in the Cana­dian one. In­clud­ing play­offs, it’s pos­si­ble a Cana­dian team could face an op­po­nent 17 times this sea­son.

Play­off changes: It’s al­ways con­fer­ence vs. con­fer­ence in the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal. Not nec­es­sar­ily this sea­son. The first two rounds will be played within the divi­sion. The divi­sion win­ners will ad­vance to the semi­fi­nals, but seed­ing will be based on points rather than ge­og­ra­phy. So two tra­di­tional East teams or two tra­di­tional West teams could end up as op­po­nents in the Fi­nal.

Taxi squads: To help teams deal with po­ten­tial pos­i­tive cases and con­tact trac­ing, they will have a taxi squad of four to six play­ers who will prac­tice and be ready to step in if needed.

Com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties: NHL teams will have no fans or a lim­ited num­ber of fans at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son. The league is step­ping up with spon­sor­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties so teams don’t have to re­fund money. Each divi­sion will in­clude the name of a cor­po­rate spon­sor. And more than a dozen teams will in­clude a spon­sor name on their hel­mets.

Sched­ule anom­alies: The league is try­ing to limit travel, so many teams will spend two games in a city be­fore go­ing to an­other city or head­ing home. Cana­dian teams will some­times play three games in a city if mak­ing a cross-coun­try trip. The Sharks will open with eight games on the road be­cause Santa Clara County rules bar them from play­ing there. There is no All-Star Game or Win­ter Clas­sic, but the league will play two out­door games at Lake Ta­hoe Feb. 20 (Ve­gas vs. Colorado) and Feb. 21 (Philadel­phia vs. Bos­ton).

Sloppy play early? Train­ing camps were short, and there were no pre­sea­son games, only scrim­mages. Seven teams have not played a game since March. Pos­i­tive tests and con­tact trac­ing could limit prac­tices dur­ing the sea­son. That could have an im­pact on the qual­ity of play.

Fa­mil­iar faces in new places: Play­ers move all the time, but this off­sea­son had some sur­pris­ing changes. Joe Thorn­ton, who played 15 sea­sons with the Sharks, de­cided to chase a Stan­ley Cup in Toronto. The Bruins passed on bring­ing back long­time cap­tain Zdeno Chara, and he signed with the Cap­i­tals.

Long­time Blues de­fense­man Alex Pi­etrangelo got the big-money con­tract he sought from the Golden Knights. Braden Holtby, who won a Stan­ley Cup and Vez­ina Tro­phy in Washington, is now in Van­cou­ver.

Miss­ing faces: Goalie Hen­rik Lundqvist needed heart surgery and will miss the sea­son. Two-time Stan­ley Cup win­ner Corey Craw­ford, who signed with the Devils, an­nounced his re­tire­ment be­fore play­ing a game with New Jer­sey. Black­hawks cap­tain Jonathan Toews is on leave as he deals with symp­toms that leave him “drained and lethar­gic.”

Miss­ing voices: NBC Sports play-by­play le­gend Mike Em­rick re­tired af­ter call­ing his 22nd Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal. The net­work is not bring­ing back an­a­lyst Mike Mil­bury, who made an “in­sen­si­tive” com­ment dur­ing last sea­son’s play­offs. Pen­guins ra­dio voice Mike Lange, 72, known for phrases like “Scratch my back with a hack­saw,” won’t go into the booth at the start of the sea­son as he waits to get a coro­n­avirus vac­ci­na­tion.

Trades could be dif­fi­cult: The trade dead­line is April 12, and in re­cent years, most of the big­ger deals have been made be­fore the fi­nal day. This year, trades will be dif­fi­cult be­cause play­ers switch­ing teams in the United States face a seven-day quar­an­tine if they fly com­mer­cially to their new city. Play­ers traded from a U.S. city to a Cana­dian city face a po­ten­tial 14-day quar­an­tine. In a short­ened sea­son, that will be a long time with­out ac­cess to a player.

The ex­pan­sion draft looms: NHL gen­eral man­agers must de­cide who they’ll make avail­able for the Seat­tle Kraken’s ex­pan­sion draft. Some in-sea­son moves will be made with that in mind. The dead­line for sub­mit­ting the list is July 17 and the draft is July 21. Ide­ally, GMs would like to avoid hav­ing their for­mer play­ers be­come stars as they did dur­ing the Golden Knights’ ex­pan­sion draft.

 ?? PERRY NEL­SON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? Af­ter 15 sea­sons with the Sharks, Joe Thorn­ton will play for the Maple Leafs.
PERRY NEL­SON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS Af­ter 15 sea­sons with the Sharks, Joe Thorn­ton will play for the Maple Leafs.
 ?? GARY A. VASQUEZ/ USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? New Golden Knights de­fense­man Alex Pi­etrangelo, shown with his Blues’ C jer­sey in March, has 450 points on 109 goals and 341 as­sists in 758 NHL games.
GARY A. VASQUEZ/ USA TO­DAY SPORTS New Golden Knights de­fense­man Alex Pi­etrangelo, shown with his Blues’ C jer­sey in March, has 450 points on 109 goals and 341 as­sists in 758 NHL games.

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