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NHL schedule to features new divisions

By Helene Elliott
Los Angeles Times/TNS

The Kings and Ducks will compete with Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis and Vegas in the NHL’s West division, one of four new divisions created for the purpose of minimizing travel and health risks and making it possible to play the 2020-21 season. As announced on Sunday, the 56-game schedule will start on Jan. 13, end on May 8 and feature play exclusively within each team’s division.

Under this plan, the Stanley Cup playoffs will end by mid-July, and the league will return to is traditional calendar of an October start in the 2021-22 season.

In identically worded news releases, the NHL and NHL Players’ Assn. acknowledged they would have to be flexible to respond to changes in health regulations and conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is the current plan to play games in the home arenas of participating teams while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be open to fans,” the statement said. “However, depending on prevailing conditions both in local markets and across North America, the League will be prepared to play games in one or more ‘neutral site’ venues per division should it become necessary.”

The seven teams based in Canada are grouped together and will play one another, a decision forced on the league because of restrictions that have closed the U.S.-Canada border. The San Jose Sharks reportedly are considering opening their training camp and playing games in Arizona because of health regulations in Santa Clara County. Those restrictions have led the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers to leave the Bay Area and establish a base in Arizona.

Training camps for the seven teams that missed the playoffs - among them the Kings and Ducks - will open on Dec. 31. Camp will open Jan. 3 for the remaining 24 teams.

“This has been a day we have been eagerly waiting for since March, so needless to say we are excited about our return,” said Bob Murray, Ducks executive vice president and general manager. “We are well-prepared, healthy and ready to take a major step forward this year. While we will miss our fans and the atmosphere at Honda Center, we know they will be watching. We look forward to seeing our supporters again in person as soon as deemed safe by health officials.”

The North division will have seven teams, while the West, Central and East will each have eight teams. The teams in the East, Central and West will play each other eight times. Teams in the North will play each other nine or 10 times.

The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs, with the No. 1 seed facing No. 4, and No. 2 facing No. 3, in each division. The four teams that advance to the semifinals will be seeded by their point totals. The traditional four-round, best-of-seven format will return, meaning there won’t be a repeat of the experiment the league tried last season when it expanded the playoff field to 24 and instituted a best-of-three play-in round and non-elimination seeding games for top seeds. The NHL conducted the playoffs in bubbles created in Edmonton and Toronto.

“The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in the statement. “While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play. And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly Executive Director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our League back on the ice.”

Said Fehr: “The Players are pleased to have finalized agreements for the upcoming season, which will be unique but also very exciting for the fans and Players alike. During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice.”

Protocols for health and safety and other details will be made public this week.

The Tampa Bay Lightning's Ondrej Palat (18) scores a goal past Boston Bruins goaltender Jaroslav Halak (41) during overtime to win Game 2 of the Eastern Conference second-round playoff series at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Aug. 25, 2020.