The NHL is about to embark on a season this week unlike any other.
Realigned divisions, taxi squads, a compressed schedule, a different playoff format — all amid the specter of the coronavirus pandemic that has already delayed the start of the season for one team.
The NHL announced Friday that because six Dallas players and two staff members had recently tested positive for COVID-19, the Stars’ season is not expected to start until Jan. 19 at the earliest. Dallas’ first game was scheduled to take place Thursday.
“The thing with this virus is you never know when it’s going to strike and who it’s going to hit,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said at the start of training camp. “All you can really do is be as careful as you possibly can. There’s so many things that are going to get thrown at different teams this year. Just try and be safe, try and be careful and then hope that it’s not us.”
Here are some details about the changes taking place this season.
NEW DIVISIONS: Because the northern U.S. border is closed to non-essential travel, the NHL realigned their 31 teams into four new divisions, including a division with all seven Canadian teams.
The new divisions are: EAST — Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington; CENTRAL — Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay; WEST — Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas; NORTH — Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg.
SEASON LENGTH: Each NHL team is scheduled to play 56 games this season. To cut down on travel costs and potential contacts, teams will only play other teams within their divisions. Instead of playing one game in a city and moving on, teams will play each other twice in a row, sometimes on back-to-back nights and other times twice in three days. Teams in the North Division will play each other nine or 10 times this season.
COVID PROTOCOLS: There are plenty. But mainly, coaches will be required to wear masks behind the benches. On the road, players and others in the team’s traveling party will only be allowed to go between their hotels and the arenas or league-sanctioned practice rinks, and cannot visit restaurants or bars. Meetings will be conducted virtually as much as possible.
Players and other team staff members will be tested daily through at least the first four weeks of the season. Media in most cities will be allowed to watch practices and games, but all interviews are to be conducted electronically as no reporters are allowed in locker rooms.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A PLAYER TESTS POSITIVE?: Players who test positive for the coronavirus and exhibit symptoms will be required to isolate until medical clearance is obtained. Contract tracing would begin immediately.
Players who test positive but are asymptomatic will be isolated and contact tracing would start immediately. A test to confirm would be conducted 24 hours later and if that test is negative, another test would be conducted the following day. If that next test is negative, a third confirmatory test will be conducted after another 24 hours.
If any of those tests are positive, the player will remain isolated and contact tracing will continue. If all three confirmatory tests come back negative, the player will be free to rejoin his team and resume training, and close contacts will also be released from isolation.
FANS IN THE BUILDINGS: Although teams will be playing in their own buildings this season, except possibly the Sharks, the NHL does not have a one-size-fits-all policy when if comes to allowing spectators. Those decisions are left to local jurisdictions.
To start the season, the Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars will be allowing a limited number of fans into their arenas. For the Sharks’ games with the Coyotes on Thursday and Saturday, a maximum of 3,450 fans will be allowed into Gila River Arena, which has a seating capacity of 17,125 for hockey. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins may also start to allow some fans into their arenas after the season begins.
HELMET ADVERTISING: In an effort to “make good” with their local sponsors, teams will have advertising on the sides of their helmets this season. The Sharks announced Tuesday that their helmets this season will feature SAP and Zoom decals.
WHERE ARE THE SHARKS PLAYING?: The Sharks are starting the season on an eight-game road trip from Thursday to Jan. 28. They are scheduled to play their first home game Feb. 1, but it remains unclear if they will be able to return to San Jose by that point because of local and regional restrictions. If the Sharks cannot play games at SAP Center at the start of next month, they would have to find another venue. Returning to Arizona and playing at Gila River Arena would make sense.
TAXI SQUADS: Before the season begins, NHL teams have to reduce their active roster to no more than 23 players. Teams also need to place between four and six players on their taxi squad. These players travel and practice with the NHL team and can be activated to play just hours before a game is supposed to begin.
The reasoning behind taxi squads is to help ensure teams have enough players to play games on any given day in case a number of individuals suddenly become unavailable, either through positive tests or contact tracing.
Any player can be placed on the taxi squad. However, certain players, depending on their age and the amount of games they’ve played in the NHL, would need to clear waivers to before they can be assigned — just like they would if a team wanted to assign them to the AHL.
OFFSIDE RULE: In an effort to help eliminate some of the guesswork on replays that may be involved in deciding whether a player’s skate is on the ice or not, the NHL has now determined that a player’s skate will not have to be in contact with the blue line in order to be on-side.
Per the NHL 83.1, “A player is on-side when either of his skates are in contact with the blue line, or on his own side of the line, at the instant the puck completely crosses the leading edge of the blue line.
“On his own side of the line shall be defined by a “plane” of the blue line which shall extend from the leading edge of the blue line upwards. If a player’s skate has yet to break the “plane” prior to the puck crossing the leading edge, he is deemed to be on-side for the purpose of the off-side rule.”
The new rule should allow for more goals to be allowed this season, something the NHL probably would not mind, and perhaps cut down on the number of coaches’ challenges, which would speed games along.
Upcoming Critical Dates
Jan. 13 — 2020-21 regular season begins
April 12 — Trade deadline (noon PT)
May 8 — Last day of regular season
*May 11 — Stanley Cup playoffs begin
*July 9 — Last possible day of Stanley Cup Final
July 17 — Deadline for protection lists for expansion draft (2 p.m. PT)
July 21 — Expansion draft for Seattle Kraken (5 p.m. PT)
July 23 — Round 1 of NHL Draft
July 24 — Rounds 2-7 of NHL Draft
July 28 — Restricted Free Agent/Unrestricted Free Agent signing period begins (9 a.m. PT)
*subject to adjustment