The NHL is planning for an 82-game regular season in 2021-22.
But things may not be completely back to normal.
The league has announced that, pending any significant setback, they are aiming for an October 12th opening night. This is a few days later than in the average season, but barely a blip on the radar in the larger picture. The expansion draft is set for July 21st, with the Entry Draft scheduled to start two days later.
Where things could get interesting though, is where the Columbus Blue Jackets may find themselves next season. The newly-created Central Division, in which the Blue Jackets just finished in last place, was meant to be a one-off. As recently as March, league commissioner Gary Bettman said that he expected traditional divisions for 2021-22.
Vaccine availability and hesitancy has prolonged COVID-19 concerns north of the border, though, which was not as big of an issue in March as it seems to be now.
In the United States, roughly 37% of Americans are fully vaccinated against the virus. In Canada, however, that number sits at less than 6%. The US-Canada border remains closed, and with no sign it opening anytime soon, the league will soon need to at least consider what to do if the border remains closed and an exception is not made.
The NHL on the GMs' call today shared its hopeful target date for puck drop next fall: Oct. 12.— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) April 21, 2021
Which is about a week or so later than normal.
Training camps hopefully opening Sept. 22.
Again, that Oct. 12 start date is if there are no delays. @TSNHockey @TheAthletic
The pandemic is not the only reason for this, though. Chris Johnston of Sportsnet recently stated that there are multiple teams in Canada are pushing for at least one more season of the North Division. “There are at least a couple of the Canadian teams that are still (holding) out hope that the North Division will live beyond this season, that they’ll get at least one more year of that,” said Johnston. The biggest motivation for this, says Johnston, is that these teams want the excitement of an all-Canadian division with fans in the seats. Fans are still not in attendance at games in Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg – the final three cities still hosting games north of the border.
One way or the other, if the North Division remains for 2021-22, the domino effect will almost assuredly lead to the Blue Jackets finding themselves in a tough (and getting tougher) Central Division for next season. Tampa Bay and Carolina are arguably the two best teams in the league, and every team in the division other than Columbus made strides as the season went along.
If the league does return to its traditional alignment and the Blue Jackets are back in the Metropolitan division for next season, it may make a return to the postseason a bit easier. Carolina will still be tough, but some teams in the division will be (perhaps) past their primes (Pittsburgh and Washington), and other teams (Philadelphia and New Jersey) have major question marks throughout the lineup.
There are currently two proposals for next season, should divisions go back to how they were before the pandemic. The first would see the Blue Jackets play the opposing conference twice (once at home, once on the road), three games with Atlantic division teams, and three or four games against division rivals. Playoff seeding in this proposal would return to the top three teams in each conference making the postseason, with two wildcard spots up for grabs in each conference.
The second proposal would see Columbus play home and away games with teams from the other three divisions, four games against each team in the Metro, and six games designated for "special scheduling"; which has not been detailed. In this format, much like this season, the top four teams in each division would make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Which plan are you in favor of? Do you want to see the Blue Jackets back in the Central for one more go at it, or is it time to go back to the Metro. If so, which proposal would you like to see?