NHL

NHL 2020-21 season will have a playoff feel right from the start

The condensed schedule, realigned divisions make every game more meaningful

The best part about the agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association is that, despite all the complications caused by the coronavirus, we still get many of the best parts of the NHL season.

Rivalries. The stretch run. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Really, we skip right to them, and we get unique bonuses. Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews at least nine times in division games? Yes, please.

Think about what 2020-21 will look like based on the agreement announced Sunday.

The seven teams that didn’t participate in the 2019-20 Return to Play Plan can begin training camp as soon as Dec. 31. The rest begin Jan. 3.

No preseason games.

We go straight into a 56-game regular season Jan. 13. Playing 56 games instead of the usual 82 makes every game more meaningful. It’s roughly as if the entire NHL, already famous for its parity, were tied coming out of the All-Star break.

It gets better.

Because of the closure of the Canada-United States border, the NHL realigned the divisions temporarily. The seven teams based in Canada will play in the North. The 24 teams based in the United States will play in the West, Central and East.

Because of the need to limit travel, each team will play only its division rivals. In the North, each team will play every other nine or 10 times. In the West, Central and East, each team will play every other eight times.

To qualify for the playoffs, you must finish in the top four in your division. If you qualify, the first two rounds will be within the division again. The four teams that advance to the Semifinal Round will be seeded by their points total in the regular season.

It’s going to be Darwinian, a throwback to the days when divisions had different names.

“If [the NHL] and [the NHLPA] can pull off a ’21 season, the divisional game schedule/playoffs could be terrific,” tweeted the great hockey writer Michael Farber, whose plaque hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a winner of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award. “The most compelling hockey in memory was when Adams, Smythe, Norris, and Patrick teams clawed their way to the semis. Real rivalries. Nothing better.”

Look, we all know the negatives. We’d rather have a full schedule with full buildings. Much remains uncertain too.

But the first priority is health and safety. The pandemic is out of the control of the NHL and the NHLPA.

And remember what happened after the 2019-20 season was paused March 12?

After a pause of more than four months, the NHL returned with a 24-team tournament in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, and the competition was more than worthy of the Stanley Cup, perhaps the toughest ever.

The NHL and the NHLPA adapted, and instead of making the best of a bad situation, they turned a bad situation into something spectacular.

This will be different, but a similar challenge and opportunity.

The North Division is nothing short of special and should be embraced as such. The NHL hasn’t had an all-Canada division since 1937-38. It probably will never have an all-Canada division again.

The Battles of Alberta and Ontario were going to rage as usual. Goalie Jacob Markstrom, who signed with the Calgary Flames as a free agent Oct. 9, already was going to face his former team, the Vancouver Canucks. But now they will do so more often, and we’ll get to see McDavid vs. Matthews on a regular basis too when the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs play division games.

The West already has been hailed as extraordinarily difficult by Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer. Not only do you have the usual rivalries like the Golden Knights vs. the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks vs. the Los Angeles Kings, you have the teams that finished 1-2-3 in the Western Conference last season: the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche and the Golden Knights.

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who won the Stanley Cup with the Blues as their captain in 2019 and signed with the Golden Knights as a free agent Oct. 12, will have to face his former team eight times in division games.

“For me, there’s benefits to being in a really tough division,” DeBoer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “You’re playing really tough opponents, and you’re going to have to play really good hockey right from the start through the season. Hopefully that toughens your skin, so to speak, for the playoffs.”

The Central features the Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the runners-up, the Dallas Stars. That’s eight Stanley Cup Final rematches. It even adds intrigue for the team that finished 31st last season. The Detroit Red Wings get to rekindle old rivalries with the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.

The East? Well, there are too many traditional rivalries to count. We get Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Eight times.

DeBoer is right. You’re going to have to play really good hockey right from the start. That should toughen your skin for the playoffs.

Except, in essence, the playoffs will begin right from the start.

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