Among the four major professional sports leagues in North America, the NHL is unique in this way; it is the only league that has separate national broadcasters in the United States (NBC) and Canada (Rogers Sportsnet).
As the NHL and the NHLPA discuss and negotiate how a shortened 2020/2021 NHL season will be played, broadcast rights present a significant detail that both parties must respect. NBC has exclusive rights to broadcast the Tokyo Summer Olympics in the United States. Rogers Sportsnet has non-exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympic Games in Canada.
The Summer Olympics start on July 23rd, 2021. Consequently, there is a finish/start relationship between the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs and the Summer Olympics. The 2021 NHL Stanley Cup must be awarded earlier than July 23rd, 2021.
While the everyday business of NHL’s broadcast partners has major influence over the decisions the NHL and the NHLPA must agree upon, both sides have greater motivation to wrap up the 2021 NHL season much sooner than July 23rd.
The NHL and the NHLPA Want League Operations to Return to Normal, ASAP
Looking forward, all those with a vested interest in NHL operations want the 2021/22 NHL regular season to begin on-time. It is vitally important to all concerned (think deferred salaries) that the 2021/22 season be a full 82-game regular season. A good way to ensure that 2021/22 begins on-time is to award the 2021 Stanley Cup in June and allow the 2021 entry draft and free agency to start on-time.
Merely satisfying the July 23rd date imposed by its broadcast rights holders is not enough for the NHL to return to operating under normal schedules for the 2021/22 season.
In the five years prior to the 2020 Stanley Cup that was awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on September 28th, Gary Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to the captain of the championship team between June 7th and June 15th, inclusive.
Let’s use the latest date from the past five seasons and say that in order for NHL operations to return to normal for the start of the 2021/22 season the 2021 Stanley Cup must be awarded to the championship team no later than June 15th, 2021.
The 2021/22 NHL Season Will Start On-time if the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Start in April
To preserve the integrity of the Stanley Cup championship, the 2021 playoffs must consist of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Even in the unprecedented times of the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL made certain that the structure of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs consisted of four rounds of best-of-seven series.
From 1987 to 2019 the average number of days to complete the Stanley Cup playoffs was 57. I’ll do the math for you; a June 15th, 2021 finish date minus 57-days equals April 19th, 2021. That is the date the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs must start.
How does an April 19th start date for the 2021 NHL Stanely Cup playoffs affect decisions that need to be made regarding a shortened 2020/21 regular season?
The answer is it depends on the sticking points that need to be addressed before negotiations are completed and an agreement is reached between the NHL and the NHLPA.
Are Regional Divisions a Sticking Point in Negotiations Between the NHL and the NHLPA?
I don’t see divisional alignments being a sticking point between the two parties negotiating the mechanics of the shortened 2021 NHL season.
Surely, individual teams may take issue with perceived imbalances in competitiveness, or lack thereof. But for the good of the game, individual franchise issues with the concept of regional divisions take a back seat.
I see the perceived disparity as more of a media-driven storyline. Probably out of the need for content. I know first-hand that it is true in Toronto. The media allocates way too much air time minutes and print space discussing how unfair a seven Canadian division would be for six of the seven teams involved (watch out for Ottawa).
Many of the so-called pundits ignore a key relevant point when spewing their bias. Firstly, only one team wins the Stanley Cup. In order to do so, that one team must defeat all of the teams they play. There’s no other way to win the Stanley Cup.
Many of those with an opinion on how unfair a Canadian division would be, use the notion of a West Coast division to back-up their claim. Incremental to my comment that only one team can win the cup; my opinion differs from the suggested disparity created by regional divisions.
A West Coast division that includes the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks will likely include a couple or three worthy Stanley Cup contenders; Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, and possibly the Colorado Avalanche. It’ll be tough sledding to emerge at the top of the heap in that division.
With some creativity, a regional division that includes the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, and the St. Louis Blues can be beefed-up with at least two more teams with reasonable odds to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Any division that includes the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers is going to be as tough as any other.
If the 2021 Playoffs Start on April 19th, How Many Regular Season Games will be Played?
No doubt, the number of regular-season games is a sticking point in negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA. There are a lot of moving parts and each probably hinges on the collective bargaining agreement that both parties signed very recently, in July 2020.
We’ve all heard about deferred salaries. Not sure how that one gets worked out. Nonetheless, I imagine that the number of games played per week is an issue for the players. It connects with discussion and concerns about the number of back-to-back games.
In my experience of trying to solve complex problems, I always try to keep things as simple as possible. If I assume that a component of regional divisions is no crossover between divisions then the number of games played must be a multiple of the number of games it takes to complete one round-robin.
In an eight-team division, one round-robin cycle has each team playing seven games. In the event that the seven-team Canadian division comes to fruition then one cycle of a round-robin has each team playing six games.
Based on three divisions of eight teams and one division of seven teams the total number of games must be wholly divisible by seven and six. That number is 42 games. The divisions with eight teams would play six round-robin cycles; the teams would play each other six times each.
The divisions with seven teams would play seven round-robin cycles; the teams would play each other seven times each.
Based on the parameters established here for regional divisions, in order for the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs to start on April 19th, the regular season must be shortened to a 42-game schedule. No other number less than a normal 82-game regular season works.
A 42-Game Regular Season Addresses Another Sticking Point
Under normal circumstances, the regular NHL season starts mid-October and runs through to mid-April; excluding the bye week, that’s 26-weeks for each team to play an 82-game regular season. In whole numbers that is an average of three-games per week. There won’t be any resistance to adhering to this status quo.
So let’s continue; let’s apply the accustomed three-games per week to my hypothetical 42-game schedule. The result equals a nice even number, 14-weeks. Remember, the objective is to try and simplify the complex situation created by the coronavirus pandemic. Especially now, everyone wants a little normalcy, don’t they?
With the grand objective to start the 2021/22 season on-time, facilitating an April 19th date to start the Stanley Cup playoffs goes a long way to achieving that goal.
Before calculating the start of the NHL’s 2021 regular season here’s a quick recap of my hypotheticals. The number of regular-season games equals 42. Three is the average number of games each team plays per week. The Stanley Cup playoffs begin on April 19th. The Stanley Cup is awarded to the championship team on or before June 15th. The entry draft takes place on-time. Free agency starts on-time. Training camp for 2021/22 starts on-time. The 2021/22 regular season starts on-time and will be a full 82-game schedule.
Determining the Start Date of the Shortened 2021 NHL Season is Simple
Calculating a reasonable prediction of when the shortened 2021 NHL begins with the targeted April 19th date for the start of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. Let’s do the T-minus thing and subtract one-week. April 12th becomes the end date of the regular season.
Predicting the start date on the shortened 2021 NHL season requires backing up 14 weeks from April 12th. By doing so, we land on January 4th, 2021. If the NHL and the NHLPA are serious about getting things back to normal for the 2021/22 NHL season, the start of the shortened 2021 NHL season must be January 4th, 2021.
I suspect we’ll hear a joint announcement from the NHL and the NHLPA no later than Friday, December 4th.
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