At the human level, living in the midst of a pandemic is scary and unnerving at best. As the United States sets record numbers of COVID-19 cases every day, over the past few days there’s been news about developing a vaccine that is more than 90% effective. That’s a positive sign for everyone. It also reminds us as humans how life used to be.
If you’re a hockey fan, you probably miss watching hockey games with fans in the stands or even attending yourself. I miss these things and wish the regular NHL season were just that – regular. However, given the lack of effective response in the United States (and, although north of the border we are doing better, that’s not to say we’ve eliminated the virus in Canada either), we are not close to a regular season happening in 2020-21
In this post, I want to focus on how NHL hockey will likely play out for a 2020-21 season, and how that’s likely to affect Canadian teams during the coming season.
How Games Will Likely Be Played During 2020-21
Obviously, I have no decision-making capacity of any sort. Nor do I have insights into NHL executive or NHLPA talks at this point. Like most of you, I have read the possibilities of a Canadian-based division for 2020-21.
Given what I know now, what I suspect will happen as the Democrats in the United States work to more effectively treat the pandemic seriously when Joe Biden assumes office on January 20, and how I believe Canadian governments will work to protect its own citizens, I don’t believe the coming NHL regular season will be a “regular” season.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the United States’ lack of response to the crisis, the only way I can see NHL games being played are both fully within Canada and fully within the United States. That is, there will be no non-essential border crossing any time in the near future. And, as much as NHL fans love hockey, playing professional hockey games is non-essential travel.
I believe the NHL will try to have close to a regular season in that the league will try to play as large a number of games as it can during the shortest amount of time that it can. The NHL will try to squeeze more games into a shorter season’s timeframe.
Plenty of Back-to-Back Games
I believe the NHL will likely adopt a model similar to Canadian university sports teams or Major League Baseball teams. One team will travel into another team’s city and sequester there for a period of time. While the visiting hockey team is present in another city, that team will play a series of games over a short time period – say three games over the course four days.
If I am right, there’ll be plenty of back-to-back games during these series. It’s the only way I can see that the NHL might squeeze an expansive schedule into a short time frame.
Speaking only of a Canadian division, that logically means each Canadian team will play a large number of back-to-back games. Here’s where having at least two strong goalies makes a world of difference into play. During a “regular” 82-game regular season, a team would likely play about 13 back-to-back games – that’s the number of back-to-backs the Toronto Maple Leafs played during its last full season – 2018-19.
Next season backup goalies will play a much higher percentage of games.
How Canadian Teams Are Setup for Back-to-Back Games
It makes sense to me that the team with the best tandem of goalies this coming season has a huge advantage. Because backup goalies often play one game of a back-to-back series, that makes it likely a backup goalie would play about 13 games (or a little more depending upon injury or rest for a starter). During this coming season – should it be shortened with more back-to-backs – moving from east to west in Canada, the goalie situation looks this way.
Montreal Canadiens – Starter Carey Price; Backup Jake Allen
Ottawa Senators – Starter Matt Murray; Backup Marcus Hogberg
Toronto Maple Leafs – Starter Frederik Andersen; Backup Jack Campbell
Winnipeg Jets – Starter Connor Hellebuyck; Backup Laurent Brossoit
Calgary Flames – Starter Jacob Markstrom; Backup David Rittich
Edmonton Oilers – Starter Mikko Koskinen; Backup Mike Smith
Vancouver Canucks – Starter Thatcher Demko; Backup Braden Holtby
So, What Canadian Teams Have an Advantage?
On the face of things, the Canadiens situation looks strong with Price as the starter and Allen as the backup goalie. After that, it’s a bit of a crap shoot with some true unknowns after the starter. For example, Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy last season, but Brossoit is more of a longshot. And, does a duo such as Koskinen and Smith in Edmonton – who are both good goalies, but not elite – have an advantage over a team with one stellar goalie and one weaker goalie.
The answer to all this is “Who knows?” Goaltending is an odd thing, and over a short period of time a goalie can go on the hottest of streaks. Specifically, the Dallas Stars Anton Khudobin was an absolute beast during the playoffs and almost carried his team to the Stanley Cup.
One never knows what could happen during an NHL season like I expect we’ll have in 2020-21. But my best guess is that the backup goalies will play a much larger role that during any season we’ve had in a long, long time.
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