No one knows, quite yet, what the 2021-2022 NHL season will look like.
There have been rumors of kicking off the season with an outdoor game at Lake Louise in Alberta, which would certainly be a spectacular event but there are still a huge number of unanswered questions.
The bubble was undoubtedly a success in getting the play-offs done and dusted and the Stanley Cup awarded but practically speaking it’s not a sustainable model for an entire 87 game season. We have seen in recent weeks MLB, NFL, and College Football attempt to, as much as possible, play a normal season. Multiple games have been postponed due to outbreaks of Covid-19 (including, in Texas Sports, a large outbreak amongst the Baylor Bears).
It’s reasonable to argue that the risks to young athletes are relatively small, but much remains unknown about the long-term effects of the virus and the teams don’t play in isolation. In any return to play under a relatively normal schedule the health of those surrounding the team must also be taken into account. Not least the Stars 65-year-old head coach.
A further complication is that the border between the US and Canada is still closed to all but essential travel, and it seems unlikely it will re-open soon. While the bubble managed to circumvent this issue by enforcing a strict quarantine for all involved cross-border sports have been impacted with the Toronto Blue Jays having to play their home games in Buffalo, New York, the home of their triple-A affiliate. With the NHL having 7 teams in Canada, the difficulty of a closed border is dramatically increased.
So, what might the regular season look like?
One could imagine a temporary re-alignment of the divisions so that crossing the border doesn’t become an issue until we once again reach the playoffs (by which time, we can hope, there might be a vaccine or at least mitigation measures in place which would allow the border to re-open).
By grouping teams in mini-divisions according to geography, you could imagine a divisional grouping along the lines of:
|LA Kings||Vancouver Canucks||Minnesota Wild||Detroit Redwings|
|San Jose Sharks||Calgary Flames||Chicago Blackhawks||Columbus Blue Jackets|
|Anaheim Ducks||Edmonton Oilers||St. Louis Blues||Pittsburgh Penguins|
|Colorado Avalanche||Ottawa Senators||Nashville Predators||Philidelphia Flyers|
|Arizona Coyotes||Montreal Canadiens||Tampa Bay Lightning||New York Rangers|
|Vegas Golden Knights||Toronto Maple Leafs||Florida Panthers||New York Islanders|
|Dallas Stars||Winnipeg Jets||Carolina Hurricanes||New Jersey Devils|
|Washington Capitals||Boston Bruins|
While far from perfect (especially for the Dallas Stars) minimizing travel would help with efficiently and safely getting the season done. Indeed, a mini-bubble concept, where a team flies to a city, isolate in a hotel, and play all their regular-season away games in that city over a course of a week or so (a concept first floated in 2019 by Mark Lazerus and Dom Luszczyszyn in The Athletic) suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Especially if no or minimal fans are expected to be in attendance.
Introducing the Toews Schedule, a dramatically reimagined and player-friendly NHL season. From @MarkLazerus and @domluszczyszyn. https://t.co/Kfws4WfRRh
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) October 29, 2019
No one can say for sure right now what next season will look like.
Things could get dramatically worse, or dramatically better by the time 2021 comes around.
Hopefully, someday soon, we actually get to watch hockey like normal, with 18,500 friends in Victory Green.
Featured Image: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise