NHL news has been plentiful over the past week. Right after I submitted my column for last week, the NHL announced firm plans for this season’s divisional alignment and playoff structure. I’ll comment on that news as well as a few additional major announcements around the league.
I hope everyone who celebrates had a Merry Christmas and celebrates New Year’s Eve safely.
1. NHL Confirms Details for 2020-21 Season
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Last week, I wrote about how the NHL and NHLPA agreed to the framework for this upcoming season. The season will start on January 13 and will span 56 regular-season games. If we learned anything from this summer’s Return to Play plan, there is much more to be done. Just after I submitted my column last week, the NHL announced additional details for this upcoming season, including the playoff format, schedule dates, location of games, and the number of games against each opponent.
My two main takeaways are the playoff structure and divisional realignment. Both are rather important topics, so I’ll go into depth on the new divisions in my next take.
In regard to the playoff structure, here’s a rundown. As usual, 16 teams will make the playoffs. The league is also hoping to complete the playoffs by mid-July with the goal of returning to the normal league calendar for the 2021-22 season.
In this year’s playoffs, four teams from each division will make the playoffs, instead of the normal three teams per division and two wild cards. Also, the first two rounds of the playoffs will all be intra-divisional matchups. The number one seed will play the number four seed from their own division, and the number two seed will play the number three seed from their division. The winner of each series will play each other in the second round. The Conference Finals will consist of one team from each division.
Some potential Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final matchups have many fans salivating. Seeing as the divisions are different this year, many teams that are typically in the same division could wind up playing each other in the Conference Finals or Stanley Cup Finals. Can you imagine a Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins finals? That would be bananas.
I have been critical of the NHL’s most recent playoff change, as only a few points can result in better teams exiting the playoffs too early. But I love this current setup. The new divisions will shake up the playoff matchups and with one team in each division play in the Conference Finals, that’s must-see TV. Of course, this structure is temporary. I’m hopeful it provides great matchups for fans to enjoy, at least for one year.
2. 2020-21 Divisional Realignment
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As I touched on earlier, the divisions for this season will look drastically different. A change was necessary due to the restrictions imposed on travel into the U.S. because of COVID-19. That led to the creation of an all-Canada division. That forced the league to mix up the other divisions, too. They’re not too different, but there are some fun matchups.
Teams in the East, Central and West Divisions will play their divisional rivals eight times each. Teams in the North Division — which has one fewer team — will play their divisional opponents nine or 10 times.
That means that Edmonton and Calgary will play each other at least nine times this season. Pause. Read that sentence again. The fans deserve this. I cannot wait to watch Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk beat the living shit out of each other all season.
Detroit and Chicago are in the same division again. Yes, both teams are arguably more irrelevant than they’ve ever been combined. It’s still a fun matchup that I know I’ll enjoy, regardless of how bad each team is.
Boston and Washington are in the same division. That will make for a few exciting games.
Tampa Bay and Dallas will play each other eight times. Who doesn’t want a “best-of-eight” repeat of last season’s Stanley Cup final?
As I mentioned earlier, the best part of the mixed-up divisions is the potential that some of these teams play each other in the Conference and Stanley Cup Finals. Fingers crossed.
3. O’Reilly Named Captain of the St. Louis Blues
Ryan O’Reilly to be named Blues’ 23rd captain in club history, sources tell @TheAthleticSTL.
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) December 21, 2020
Perhaps the most fun news from last week, Ryan O’Reilly was named the 23rd captain of the St. Louis Blues. Of course, the captaincy was vacant after Alex Pietrangelo left for Vegas in free agency.
O’Reilly was the team’s best player on their run to the 2018-19 Stanley Cup and was named the Conn Smyth Trophy winner. He was acquired from Buffalo via trade before the beginning of that season.
This is a great choice by Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong and the front office. O’Reilly is exactly the type of guy you want to captain your team. He’s a great two-way player and will do anything it takes to win. The guy has won both the Lady Byng and Selke Trophies. Most GM’s opt for players on the younger side when choosing a captain to avoid turnover. The only other players I could have seen been named the captain are Vladimir Tarasenko or Colton Parayko.
O’Reilly was the right pick. If anything, maybe it will boost the Blues’ jersey sales as fans will want new O’Reilly sweaters with the “C” on it.
4. Elvis Merzlikin’s Unveils New Mask
Take a peek at Elvis Merzlikins’ new mask for next season.
— NHL (@NHL) December 23, 2020
You all know I love new goalie masks. Last week, Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins posted his masks for this season to his Instagram account. To be honest, I can’t really tell what the theme of each mask is.
It looks like the second mask shown in the video has a video game theme. I don’t really get it. However, from the little we can see of the first one, it has the Blue Jackets’ logo largely displayed on the side. That one is much better. I’ll be sure to tune into some Jackets’ games this season to see how they look on the ice.
5. Nikita Kucherov Out for Season
This was the worst news of last week. Former Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning will undergo hip surgery and will miss the entire season. Kucherov helped the Lightning to their second Stanley Cup championship last season. He scored 33 goals and recorded 52 assists in the regular season and added another 7 goals and 27 assists in the playoffs.
This is a massive blow for the defending champs. Obviously, Kucherov is one of the top 10 players in the league when healthy. Tampa is still stacked offensively, but how do you replace 85 points? It looks like Steven Stamkos will be ready for the start of the season after missing time with a few different injuries last season, notably missing all but one playoff game.
Someone will have to step up if Tampa has any shot to repeat. Thankfully for Tampa, they already won it all last season. It’s hard for them to ask for anything else considering how last season ended. This could actually help Tampa in the future. All of their best players will be under contract for another few years. Maybe a year off for Kucherov will ensure the entire team is healthy for the 2021-22 season and they can make another run at the Cup.■