It isn't official, but if this is the way things will be set up, the Sharks' playoff hopes likely were just dealt a crushing blow.
As the NHL gets closer to finalizing all of the specifics about the upcoming 2021 season, more details are emerging. The league has long been rumored to be considering a division realignment for 2021, in order to deal with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. And more specifically, how to deal with the seven Canadian teams, considering the inherent issues of international travel.
The NHL held a Board of Governors call Wednesday, and the league currently is favoring an alignment that includes an all-Canadian division, according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun. Unfortunately for the Sharks, the realignment likely would make their own division considerably tougher.
If the proposed realignment is finalized, that would mean the Sharks' division essentially swapped the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks for the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.
For those that need a refresher, the Blues, Avalanche and Stars finished first, second and third in the Central Division last season, which arguably was the toughest division in the entire league. St. Louis finished with the most points in the Western Conference. Colorado was only two points back, and was an overtime loss away from advancing to the Conference finals. The Stars, who beat the Avs in that thrilling seven-game playoff series, made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
And all three should be very good again in 2021.
The creation of an all-Canadian division would all but seem to confirm the NHL's intent on playing a solely intra-division schedule in 2021, meaning teams would only play the others in their own division. If that's the case, the Sharks likely will be playing half of their games against what are probably the four best teams in the West; remember, the Vegas Golden Knights aren't going anywhere, and they arguably got better this offseason.
And that's not even the end of it. The other three teams in the Sharks' proposed division -- the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes -- could all be on the upswing, not to mention the in-state rivalry with the former two. Really, on paper, there isn't a team in the Sharks' division that you could say they're certainly superior to.
The Sharks already were going to be challenged to qualify for the playoffs under the previous division alignment. But now, in what can only be described as the "Group of Doom," their playoff pursuit might already be over before it started.
San Jose could surprise, sure, but another down season appears far more likely. The good news is, this time, the Sharks possess their own first-round pick, and the top of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft is expected to hold some elite talent.