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What we know about 2020-21 NHL season: Key dates, playoff format, more

Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp dive into the latest NHL power rankings to analyze the Lightning's rise despite the absence of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, as well as the state of the Hurricanes.

After Sunday’s announcements, we know how the NHL plans to run its 56-game, 2020-21 season. As of Monday, some details (including a Jan. 13 start) are official, while the NHL may confirm other reports about the 2020-21 season as the week goes on. Of course, COVID can throw a wrench in virtually all of these plans, so even the most official blueprints boast traces of “tentative.”

So, there are plenty of facets of the 2020-21 NHL season that can change.

Here’s a sprawling list of things we know -- many confirmed by the NHL, some still unofficial -- as of Wednesday night.

Key dates for 2020-21 NHL season: Jan. 13 start, free agency, expansion, more

Here are the dates, which are now official from the NHL. Interestingly, the league noted some 2020-21 NHL season dates that are “subject to adjustment.” (With COVID, aren’t they all, really?)

Dec. 31 - Training camps open for seven teams that did not participate in the resumption of play for the 2019-20 season (Anaheim, Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Ottawa, San Jose)

Jan. 3 - Training camps open for the remaining 24 teams

Jan. 13 - 2020-21 regular season begins

April 12 - Trade deadline (3 p.m. ET)

May 8 - Last day of regular season

*May 11 - Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

*July 9 - Last possible day of Stanley Cup Final

June 2 - NHL Draft Lottery

July 17 - Deadline for Protection Lists for Expansion Draft (5 p.m. ET)

July 21 - Expansion Draft for Seattle Kraken (8 p.m. ET)

July 23 - Round 1 of NHL Draft

July 24 - Rounds 2-7 of NHL Draft

July 28 - Restricted Free Agent/Unrestricted Free Agent signing period begins (12 p.m. ET)

*subject to adjustment

If everything goes smoothly, it could still be a really tight squeeze. Frighteningly, COVID could make a tough squeeze even tougher. Hopefully the league hashed out some sound contingency plans.

Division realignment, how playoffs work during 2020-21 NHL season

As expected, the NHL realigned its four divisions, including an all-Canadian division (“The North”).

via the NHL

The NHL shared key details about how the 2020-21 NHL season will play out, including that teams will only play against other teams in their division.

  • Teams in the East, Central, and West divisions will face each other eight times. Meanwhile, in the North (all-Canadian) Division, the seven teams will face other divisional rivals either nine or 10 times.
  • During the 2020-21 NHL season, the league will break from its wild-card format. Instead, it’s quite simple: the top four teams from each of the four divisions will make up the 16 playoff squads.
  • From there, the top seed in each division faces the fourth seed, while the second faces the third. The winners face off in the second round. After the divisional bracketing is taken care of, the four remaining playoff teams will be re-seeded.

This could create some fascinating, one-of-a-kind matchups for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Want specifics? PHT’s Adam Gretz put together power rankings for the top 20 potential 2021 Stanley Cup Final series that can only happen during the 2020-21 NHL season.

Schedules for all 31 NHL teams during 2020-21 season


Anaheim Ducks

Arizona Coyotes

Boston Bruins

Buffalo Sabres

Calgary Flames

Carolina Hurricanes

Chicago Blackhawks

Colorado Avalanche

Columbus Blue Jackets

Dallas Stars

Detroit Red Wings

Edmonton Oilers

Florida Panthers

Los Angeles Kings

Minnesota Wild

Montreal Canadiens

Nashville Predators

New Jersey Devils

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Ottawa Senators

Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins

San Jose Sharks

St. Louis Blues

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Vancouver Canucks

Vegas Golden Knights

Washington Capitals

Winnipeg Jets

[Related: Notes, takeaways from the NHL schedule releases]

Biggest question lingering: Will teams be able to play in Canada?

When it comes to making all of this work, reaching agreements with health and government officials remains key. It’s the vulcanized rubber elephant in the room, especially with different standards in Canada.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli captured the mood of uncertainty surrounding playing games in Canada. (For those wondering why it’s the “North” Division instead of the Canadian Division? Perhaps it’s because the league must acknowledge the possibility that those seven Canadian teams will instead be playing in America?)

In particular, it’s interesting that the Canadian provinces might present unified standards for play. Via Seravalli:

The provincial health authorities met with the NHL and NHLPA in a group call on Saturday. More discussion will take place early this week, but it is possible that the provinces decide to band together with a group philosophy - presenting a potential all-or-nothing scenario.

If the provincial health authorities do not sign off, the NHL could be forced to move the seven Canadian teams to a hybrid hub in Canada (likely in Edmonton) or south of the border for the season.

Can fans attend home games? That depends on state governments and other factors.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., there could be a wide variety of setups. Some teams may not be able to play in their home arenas. Others could quickly put together fairly large audiences.

Early on, it sounds like the Dallas Stars might push the envelope with as many as 5,000 fans in attendance.

Reports indicate that the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning may also waste little time playing in front of at fans.

Meanwhile, some U.S.-based teams are in flux. Though Doug Wilson hopes that the Sharks can eventually return to Santa Clara, they’re expected to at least hold training camp activities in Arizona.

With uncertainty surrounding COVID -- will a vaccine be effective, and accessible, and when? -- these situations could end up being very fluid.

Training camps, roster sizes, cap considerations, and more

As the week goes on, the NHL may share more details. Here are some key notes about the 2020-21 NHL season, mostly via reports:

  • The opt-out deadline for players is Dec. 24 (for players of the seven teams that didn’t make the Qualifying Round) and Dec. 27 (for players on the remaining 24 NHL teams).
  • On one hand, players deemed at-risk for COVID can opt-out of the 2020-21 NHL season while still being paid. On the other, the NHL will keep an eye on the situation, in case teams want to use that to circumvent the salary cap. (Both via Frank Seravalli.)
  • Taxi squad setups might help cap-crunched teams ever so slightly. It may help with goalies, in particular, as NHL teams reportedly will need to employ three goalies between their active roster and taxi squad. (Via reporters including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.)
  • As opposed to the normal 10-game deadline, teams will burn a year off of a player’s entry-level contract if they play seven games or more during the 2020-21 NHL season. (Via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.)
  • Also according to Friedman: teams can have rosters of 36 players and “unlimited goalies” during training camps.

COVID protocols for 2020-21 NHL season

For a deeper look, check out Adam Gretz’s post for PHT. Here are some highlights:

  • Home teams must make their home rink or practice rink available to visiting teams. Visiting teams are not permitted to use rinks owned by third parties. Team practices will also not be open to the public.
  • Players will also only be permitted to go to the rink and hotel on road trips. No other destinations, including bars, restaurants, clubs, etc., will be permitted.
  • During the regular season the NHL will announce the names of players that test positive, but will not do so during training camp when it will simply release league wide numbers.
  • Coaches must wear masks while on the bench.
  • Symptomatic players who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate “until medical clearance is obtained,” and contact tracing will take place. Team doctors will manage situations for symptomatic players who test negative for COVID-19.
  • Read about the more complex processes in Adam Gretz’s post.

Offside rule change for next NHL season

Starting this season, players will no longer have to have their skate in contact with the blue line to remain onside. The blue line now becomes a vertical plane.

From the league:

83.1 Off-side – Players of the attacking team must not precede the puck into the attacking zone.

The position of the player’s skates and not that of his stick shall be the determining factor in all instances in deciding an off-side. A player is off-side when both skates are completely over the leading edge of the blue line involved in the play.

(NEW) – A player is on-side when either of his skates are in contact with the blue line, or on his own side of the line, at the instant the puck completely crosses the leading edge of the blue line. On his own side of the line shall be defined by a “plane” of the blue line which shall extend from the leading edge of the blue line upwards. If a player’s skate has yet to break the “plane” prior to the puck crossing the leading edge, he is deemed to be on-side for the purpose of the off-side rule.

Plenty still to be determined, including free agents

Despite this slew of information, there are still elements that need clarification.

Again, most importantly, NHL teams need to know where they can play, and if fans can attend games. And while signings are picking up, plenty of free agents still need deals. So stay tuned, hockey fans.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.