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Official: NHL & NHLPA Agree to 56-Game Season for 2021 Starting January 13

On Friday night, a plan for a 2021 NHL season was tentatively agreed upon by the National Hockey League and the NHL Player’s Association. This afternoon it is official. Both the NHL Board of Governors and the PA formally agreed to a plan. There will be 56-game NHL regular season for 2021 starting on January 13 and ending on May 8.

This is fantastic news in of itself. For the first time since mid-March, we will have the New Jersey Devils play a game of hockey. We are less than a month away from the Devils playing an actual game. I can hardly wait.

Much of the details that were reported on Friday night remain true. Further details for the 2021 season have come about. Here is a summary of the major ones to know.

League Dates of Importance: In addition to January 13 being the start date for the season and May 8 being the ending date, here are the other major days for the season to know per Elliotte Friedman, Pierre LeBrun, and CapFriendly:

  • December 24, 2020 – Last day for a player on a non-playoff team (like New Jersey) to opt out of the 2021 season.
  • December 27, 2020 – Last day for a player on a playoff team to opt out of the 2021 season.
  • December 28, 2020 – Waivers begin.
  • December 31, 2020 – First day of training camp for non Return to Play teams (like New Jersey).
  • January 3, 2021 – First day of training camp for Return to Play participant teams.
  • January 12 – By 5 PM ET, all teams must be roster and cap compliant.
  • January 13 – First day of the 2021 NHL regular season.
  • February 1 – First day for teams to request players to waive No-Movement Clauses for the purposes of the expansion draft (yes, it’s this year).
  • February 11 – The last day a Group II Restricted Free Agent (e.g. Jesper Bratt, Mackenzie Blackwood) can sign a contract and play in the 2021 season.
  • March 12 – Players on one-year deals can begin to be extended on this day.
  • April 12 – The NHL Trade Deadline.
  • May 8 – The last day of the NHL regular season.
  • May 11 – The first day of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs.
  • July 15 – Last possible day for the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. 24 hours after the Stanley Cup Playoffs are over, teams can begin buying out players.
  • July 21 – The Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft
  • July 23 & July 24 – The 2021 NHL Entry Draft
  • July 28 – Unrestricted free agency begins for the 2021-22 offseason.

Per the NHL’s release, the intent is that the league will get back to the normal schedule for 2021-22 with the season starting in October.

Training Camp Size: Per Friedman, teams are limited to 36 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders. By my count at CapFriendly, the Devils have 35 skaters under contract. They could sign or invite one player assuming all 35 show up for camp.

Division & Playoff Format: As revealed earlier, all 31 teams will be split up into four divisions. All regular season games will be within the division. The top four teams will qualify for the playoffs and the first round will have #1 play #4 and #2 play #3. The winners of that will play each other in the second round. This means each division will be represented in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

The New Jersey Devils are in the East Division along with the two New York teams, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, Buffalo, and Boston. Short of multiple teams faceplanting their season (which is possible as there is no preseason this year), good luck to the Devils in this division.

Carolina and Columbus from the Metropolitan Division will be in the Central Division for this year. They will join Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, and Tampa Bay. They should be able to hang with this group.

The West Division will have St. Louis, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, and Las Vegas. With the current Coronavirus restrictions in Santa Clara county, San Jose is expected to start their season preparations and their season in Arizona.

The North Division is the all Canadian division. Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Ottawa will face off amongst each other. Whereas each team in the other three divisions will play each other 7 times, these teams will play each other 8 times. Hence, a 56-game schedule.

The NHL does acknowledge that home arenas are preferred for home games in the season and playoffs. But they can play games in “neutral” locations if required.

Taxi Squad: All teams can carry a taxi squad of players beyond the 23-man active roster to join in for team activities, travel, and practices. CapFriendly summarized all of the details for the taxi squad in this Tweet. Here are the highlights:

  • Taxi squads are 4 to 6 players, no more and no less.
  • Players on the taxi squad are considered to be minor league players. They will be paid at their AHL salaries unless they are on a one-way contract; then they will be paid at their NHL rate like any other one-way contract. Their cap hit would be treated as a buried cap hit as a minor league player would. They will need to be called up and subject to waivers as necessary. Any injuries to the taxi squad players will be considered as if they were injured in the minors.
  • Clearing waivers will still last for ten games or thirty days. Any emergency recalls will last for ten games as well. This has not changed.
  • Of note about injuries, if a taxi squad player is hurt and/or “unfit to play” then the team can request they not count towards the 4-6 player limit while they are out.
  • Taxi squads must contain one goaltender if the team has fewer than three goaltenders on the active roster.
  • Taxi squads can be put together first on the last day of training camp. They will end when the team’s season ends.

Basically, teams will still need to have a 23-man roster that meets the NHL’s salary cap ceiling of $81.5 million. But they will have at least 27 to 29 actual players physically with the team. There is no preseason so training camp will be primarily used to determine who will be with the team ahead of any 2021 season for the AHL. The “final cuts” of past training camps will be physically around the team. And goaltending battles will be a thing across the league.

Expansion Modifications: The games played requirements for exposing players for this July’s expansion draft have been changed. Per CapFriendly, the 40 game requirement for this season is now scaled back to 27 games to account for the 56-game season. The 70 game requirement over the last two seasons is now scaled back to 54 games. CapFriendly will adjust their expansion draft tools accordingly.

In other words, pay attention to who is able to play frequently this season. It will be a factor later in the Summer.

Subject to Change: As with everything involving the Coronavirus pandemic, a lot is subject to change between arena availability, changes in government restrictions and regulations, and player and personnel safety and health. While the league dates are what the NHL has planned for 2021 and a regular season schedule will come out soon, the NHL and the NHLPA are prepared to be flexible as needed. It is not ideal but as with a lot of things in 2020, nothing is ideal and normalcy is not expected for quite some time.

This also means there are still other details that need to be worked out. Can teams trade players across divisions, namely to the North? How will taxi squads be handled if there is an AHL season? Could the taxi squad be expanded if a team has more than six players unavailable to play for whatever reason? While it is coming soon and we have a general idea of what it will be, how will games be scheduled? What if there are postponements? Are neutral site locations ready to go or will they be sought out as needed? I would like to think we will get answers as needed over the next few weeks.

As for the Devils, they have eleven days to prepare for camp. Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood need new contracts. To prepare for the 36-skater training camp roster, some players out on loan will need to be brought back to New Jersey and soon so they can go through a quarantine period. GM Tom Fitzgerald will have a little more time to determine if he wants to extend Kyle Palmieri and/or Nikita Gusev – assuming either wants an extension now. But I’m sure it is on his mind. And as several teams need to become cap compliant in less than a month, Fitzgerald may be working the phones to see if he can provide a solution to someone else’s problem. It is going to be a very busy time for the Devils as well as the other 30 teams, the 700+ members of the NHLPA, and the league as a whole.

And I am glad it will be because we will get a return of Devils hockey. There will be Devils hockey in 2021. There will be a NHL season in 2021. There will be a season cycle with planned dates all the way through July, which means we could theoretically have NHL hockey in every month in 2021 except for August. Game on.

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