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FILE - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with members of the media before being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Washington, in this Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, file photo. Like the NBA, the NHL is going forward with a season without a bubble. Commissioner Gary Bettman, Players' Association executive director Don Fehr and other top officials explain how hockey got to this point with a CBA that may have only staved off headaches and playing in mostly empty home arenas to start. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

NHL Opens New Season with New Format

When the NHL left the playoff bubble in Toronto, there was a growing uncertainty on the terms of the 2021 season. Growing speculation led fans to believe that the NHL would opt to wait until fans could return to stadiums. With the coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic still rampant, the NHL had roadblocks in the way of creating a schedule. It was almost like a season wouldn’t happen.

Finally, four months later, the NHL will return Wednesday for the 2021 season. Yet, this won’t be the same NHL season hockey fans are used to. Due to obvious circumstances, Commissioner Gary Bettman underwent a league realignment to ensure a safe and effective season.

New Year, New Divisions

Arguably the biggest change in the 2021 NHL season is the divisional re-alignment. There will be four divisions this season: the North, West, Central and East.

Divisions are broken up regionally, with teams from both conferences being placed in divisions. The regional break up is an effort to combat COVID-19 and ensure all international teams will be able to play. For instance, the North division is comprised of entirely Canadian teams due to the strict nature of Canada’s travel restrictions from COVID-19.

Notice, fans will be getting a Stanley Cup rematch of Dallas vs. Tampa Bay several times this season.

About the Playoffs…

Yes, due to obvious circumstances the NHL playoffs will undergo a different format in the 2021 season. While the 2020 playoffs included 24 teams, 2021 will not be as gracious.

The top four teams from each division will qualify for the 16-team playoff. Likewise, the first two rounds will follow a 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 formats. For the final two rounds, seeding will be re-aligned based on their regular-season point totals. While the traditional eastern vs. western format is thrown out the window, this will create an opportunity for Cup Final matchups never seen before.

Montreal vs. Boston? Possible under this new re-alignment. Washington vs. Pittsburgh? You bet that can happen too.

For the first time in years, the Cup champion will truly be the best team, regardless of conference.

COVID Guidelines

The NHL will resume many of the COVID guidelines from a season ago. Teams will be required to book two extra hotel rooms in the event of quarantine from a positive test.

Additionally, coaches will be required to wear masks for the entirety of the game while they are on the bench.

Also, players are not allowed to accept any services(dining, transportation or shopping) unless they are provided by the team.

What’s Next?

The puck drops on the 2021 NHL season tonight in Tampa. Follow along on WRUF at 7:30 for live coverage of the Lightning vs. the Blackhawks.

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