NHL Season Start: What To Watch For

Hockey is finally back! The NHL will drop the puck on the 2020-2021 season this afternoon with the Flyers taking on the Penguins at 2:30PM Pacific time. If all games are played as scheduled, today will be the first of 116 consecutive days of hockey to enjoy. It’s also Seattle fans’ final season as neutral observers before the Kraken enter the league this fall. Still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, things haven’t returned to normal yet. A shorter season, no fans, and a new division format leave a lot of questions about just what this season will look like. Here are a few things to look for as this unusual season begins:

Rest vs. Rust

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It’s been only three and a half months since the Stanley Cup Final ended last September. That means each of the 24 teams who participated in the NHL’s restart last summer have had a shorter than usual offseason. Meanwhile, the seven teams who didn’t participate in the restart will have gone over nine months between meaningful games. The discrepancy in time off raises some interesting questions about the effects of rest. Will the teams who played deep into September still be fatigued from the playoffs? Will non-playoff teams have slow starts to their seasons after so much time off? How much rest is too much? With no preseason games for players to get acclimated, we should see the full effects clearly. On the second day of the season, we’ll begin to have our answers. Circle two matchups on your calendar: Boston Bruins @ New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals @ Buffalo Sabres. Both are tomorrow, 1/14, at 4PM Pacific Time. They’ll be the first playoff vs. non-playoff matchups of the season.

Short Rosters and Blowouts

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The NHL isn’t the only league whose season has been altered by COVID-19. The NBA started its season three weeks ago and early returns have highlighted some issues the NHL may face. One trend we might see carry over from the NBA is COVID-19 outbreaks forcing teams to play shorthanded. Last weekend, the Philadelphia 76ers had only seven healthy players for their game against the Denver Nuggets, leading some to question whether the game should have been played. Even though the NHL is implementing a four to six man “taxi squad” for each team, contract tracing can rule out large chunks of a roster with little notice. Could we see extremely short benches like this in NHL games? According to Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column, “Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Monday on a media Zoom call they don’t want teams playing ‘significantly shorthanded.’ The AHL is contemplating a ’14-and-2 rule,’ 14 skaters and two goalies or no go. But the numbers could change before its season begins.” Even if a “14-and-2 rule” is implemented, that still leaves the possibility for some short benches and big mismatches. It’s hard to imagine an NHL team being competitive with only 14 skaters. Heck, my beer league team has more players than that most games.

What happens when the deck is stacked so heavily against teams some nights? In the NBA, the effects have already shown up on the scoreboard. Through the first three weeks of the NBA season, the average margin of victory is on pace to be the highest in league history. Observers have attributed the phenomenon to shorthanded lineups, lack of fans, the mental strain of a pandemic, and more. Whatever the cause(s) may be, they’re all issues that NHL players will also face. Don’t be surprised to see some lopsided scores in the first month of the season.

New Rivalries

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To reduce travel amid the pandemic, the NHL will have realigned divisions for the 2020-21 season.

The season’s schedule format also features mini “series” where teams play the same opponent 2 to 5 games in a row. This means that teams that ordinarily don’t play each other often will suddenly see lots of each other. If you were designing a format with rivalry in mind, you couldn’t do much better than what the NHL has done. Some of the NHL’s best existing rivalries will continue to be on display. Flames-Oilers, Penguins-Capitals, and Sharks-Golden Knights will surely produce some drama. What about new, unexpected rivalries? There will certainly be a few heated rivalries born this season that we wouldn’t have seen coming. Blues-Golden Knights? Leafs-Oilers? Lightning-Stars? We’ll have to watch to find out.

Protocol Breaches

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Captains have stressed during preseason interviews that they have a responsibility to make sure their players don’t risk exposing themselves and their teammates to COVID-19. It’s well-known around the league that this season, your position in the standings will be determined not just by your play on the ice, but also by your behavior off the ice. All it takes is one player acting irresponsibly to jeopardize an entire team’s season. It’s a problem the NFL and NBA have already experienced. In December, photos surfaced on social media of Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins at a strip club without a mask. Haskins was fined $40,000, stripped of his captaincy, and later cut by the team altogether. This week, reports emerged that Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving was seen without a mask at a family birthday party. Irving hasn’t played a game for the Nets since. While it would be nice to think that NHL players would learn from other athletes’ mistakes, the fact is that in a league with over 800 players, incidents will almost certainly occur. When they do, how will teams and the league react?

Have Fun

On opening day, it looks like the only thing that’s certain about this coming season is uncertainty. My advice is to look for the oddities this season will inevitably bring and embrace them. Being a Kraken fan allows you the great opportunity to enjoy this wacky season for what it is without getting caught up in the pressure of your team having a stake in it. Be a fan of the sport, scout players you want Seattle to take this summer, and take your mind off the stresses of COVID-19. Be neutral while you can because next season, it’s all about the Kraken.

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