Monday, June 5, 2023

When does 2021 NHL season start? Key dates, divisions, rosters, playoffs for upcoming season

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Hockey’s back!

On Dec. 20, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association reached an agreement regarding the 2021 NHL season. 

“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in the press release announcing the news. “While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play.”

Added Don Fehr, NHLPA’s executive director: “During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”

Initially, commissioner Gary Bettman was optimistic that the new season would begin on Jan. 1, but there were a few hiccups (ahem, finances) along the way that needed to be sorted out. Now, with the majority of issues in the rearview mirror, there is a new timeline and we will see the puck drop in a few short weeks.

Here’s a breakdown of everything we know regarding the NHL’s now officially official return.

When does the NHL season start?

  • Training camp start date (seven non-bubble teams): Dec. 31
  • Training camp start date (remaining teams): Jan. 3
  • NHL season start date: Jan. 13

On Dec. 7, reports began to circulate that the NHL was putting a big, red-pencil circle around Jan. 13. Now that date can be circled with a big, fat red permanent marker.

The seven teams that did not compete in the 2020 postseason will get a few extra ice sessions as the majority of their players have not suited up since things shut down March 12. As for the remaining 24 teams, they’ll open up trainig camp on Jan. 3.

One fun note: no exhibition games this year. It’s straight to games that count — and this season, in particular, every game is a must-win.

How many games will be played?

Why is every game a must-win? Well, first off, someone needs to tell Bill Foley to play the lottery. The Golden Knights owner noted in a radio interview in October that the NHL is aiming for a 56-game season, and he hit the nail on the head. 

“If we play 56 games in four months, that’s a lot of games,” he said in discussing why he kept No. 1 goalies Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury in Vegas. “There’s not going to be a break. There’s going to be a lot of back-to-backs. In theory, we’re going to play four games a week to get this season done. Maybe even more — five games a week.”

So the puck will drop on Jan. 13 and teams will play 56 games with the regular season ending on May 8. Each team will play the other members of its division (more on that momentarily) eight, nine or 10 times over the course of the season. 

As Foley had noted, the timetable makes sense because NBC is the home of not only the NHL postseason but also the Olympics, which are (fingers crossed) set to take place in late July. 

Bettman also noted in November, when speaking at the 2020 Paley International Council Summit, that a goal of the league “is to get back to a normal schedule starting [next] fall and being done before July on a longer-term basis. That is the goal.” The NHL reiterated this in Sunday’s statement.

How will games work?

First, as previously mentioned, there won’t be any exhibition games. It’ll be straight to games that count.

As for how those contests will actually get played, the plan to begin the season is for games to played in home arenas. However, the NHL did stress in Sunday’s statement that these plans are fluid:

It is the current plan to play games in the home arenas of participating teams while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans. However, depending on prevailing conditions both in local markets and across North America, the League will be prepared to play games in one or more “neutral site” venues per division should it become necessary.

One thing is abundantly clear: there will not be a season-long bubble. The toll of being isolated for weeks to months during the Stanley Cup playoffs, depending on how deep one’s team went, was made clear by players and coaches alike; neither they nor the NHL appears up for that again.

Now, whether or not the plan is to play a one-game or a few games at a time in a team’s home rink is unknown. ESPN’s Wyshynski and Emily Kaplan reported back at the beginning of December that the NHL was looking at an MLB-style series of three to four games at a time. The actual schedule has not been released.

There’s also the issue of COVID-19 restrictions in some states and provinces. The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz noted that the Sharks will probably hold training camp somewhere in the Phoenix area and may have to start the season in Arizona. Up north, Ontario and B.C. are reportedly not fully on board with the idea which could force the Maple Leafs, Senators and Canucks to other Canadian cities.

What are the divisions?

Say goodbye to the conference and division alignments it took you years to memorize — at least for the 2021 season. Instead, say hello to nine or 10 regular season “Battle of Alberta’s” or eight Vegas-Colorado or “Battle of Pennsylvania” match-ups.

Teams had to be shifted around for a number of reasons, including keeping travel down, state quarantine restrictions and the Canada-United States border remaining closed. The border, for now, is closed until Jan. 21; however, the date has been moved numerous times since the pandemic began and the closure is expected to be extended.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, and that may make sense, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense,” Bettman said back in November

“It may be that we’re better off, particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating, keeping it geographically centric, more divisional based, and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues.”

While the all-Canada division has been the NHL’s worst-kept secret — Foley actually brought it up during that October radio appearance when asked about playing against the recently traded Nate Schmidt — that is now official.


Teams will face each other eight times over the course of the season.

Boston Bruins Buffalo Sabres
New Jersey Devils New York Islanders
New York Rangers Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins Washington Capitals


Teams will face each other eight times over the course of the season.

Carolina Hurricanes Chicago Blackhawks
Columbus Blue Jackets Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings Florida Panthers
Nashville Predators Tampa Bay Lightning


Teams will face each other eight times over the course of the season.

Anaheim Ducks Arizona Coyotes
Colorado Avalanche Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild St. Louis Blues
San Jose Sharks Vegas Golden Knights


Teams will face each other nine or 10 times over the course of the season.

Calgary Flames Edmonton Oilers
Montreal Canadiens Ottawa Senators
Toronto Maple Leafs Vancouver Canucks
Winnipeg Jets  

How will the playoffs work?

Gone are the short-lived days of 24 playoff teams. The NHL is back to the sweet 16 making the postseason as the top four teams in each division will advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Intradivisional (1 vs. 4; 2 vs. 3) match-ups kick things off in a best-of-seven series that will continue throughout.

  • Playoffs: May 11
  • Last possible date the Stanley Cup can be awarded: July 15 

The four teams that advance to the semis would be seeded by their regular-season points total and the top team will earn not only the No. 1 seed but will play the No. 4 seed. The other series will see No. 2 play No. 3 as the conference finals go out the window in 2021. 

Will rosters be expanded?

As in the NHL bubble, rosters will be reportedly be expanded for the 2021 season. According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, who initially reported the roster expansion on Dec. 8, NHL rosters will hold 23 players with four to six additional players on a taxi squad. Teams will be required to carry at least three goalies (two on the NHL roster and one on the taxi squad). The salary cap will remain at $81.5 million, with the taxi squad players being paid full AHL salaries as all of them will travel.

It has been reported that the Canadian NHL teams with AHL affiliates in the United States (Calgary-Stockton, Calif.; Edmonton-Bakersfield, Calif.; Vancouver-Utica, N.Y.) will keep their baby clubs down south. This will make things interesting when recalls may be necessary beyond the taxi squad.

MORE: When will the AHL return? Key dates, NHL impact for the 2021 season

Can players opt out of playing in 2021?

Yes. According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, there is an opt-out option if any player or family member is considered high-risk. A few players opted out of bubble hockey including Travis Hamonic (Flames) and Mike Green (Oilers).

Per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, players must decide by Dec. 24 (non-playoff teams) or Dec. 27 (playoff teams) if they are not playing in 2021.

What are other important dates?

2020-21 Free Agency

  • Group II RFA signed: Feb. 11 (this is usually Dec. 1 as was the case in 2018 with the Maple Leafs and William Nylander)
  • Players on one-year deals extended: March 12 (usually Jan. 1)

2021 trade deadline

2021-22 Free Agency

  • Buyout period: 24 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded
  • Free Agency begins: July 28

Seattle Kraken expansion draft

  • Protection lists for expansion draft due: July 17 (5 p.m. ET)
  • Kraken begin unprotected player (UFAs/RFAs) interviews: July 18 (10 a.m. ET)
  • Kraken finalize picks: July 21 (10 a.m. ET)
  • Expansion draft: July 21

2021 NHL Entry Draft

Why did this take so long?

One word: money. 

It was reported in mid-November that the NHL wanted to tweak the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that extended the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in July, and the players weren’t too happy about it.

According to Friedman, the NHL sent the NHL Players’ Association two proposals regarding escrow and deferred payments. In the end, the NHLPA held fast and the NHL removed the request.

MORE: Explaining escrow, deferred payments and how it can impact the upcoming season

Will there be fans?

Still no update on this on a grand scale. The league’s statement on Sunday noted that the “most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans.” As of now, each state or province has its own guidelines on social settings and groups, so this may not be known for a while. Bettman did say during his annual Stanley Cup Final press conference in September that allowing fans is a fluid situation.

“I’m just throwing it out there as a random thought: It’s conceivable that we start without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point and by some point in time, maybe, our buildings are open,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s the case, but if you’re thinking through all of the conceivable possibilities — there’s full, there’s empty, there’s a combination — and again, how we start doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how we have to finish.”


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