The likelihood that there will not be another NHL bubble for the upcoming 2021 season continues to increase.
Hockey Now’s Adrian Dater reported on Tuesday that NHL teams will play their home games in their respective arenas this upcoming season as the idea of hub cities — which the league used in Edmonton and Toronto to pull off its return-to-play plan over the summer to complete the 2019-20 campaign — would only be considered under deteriorating circumstances.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed those sentiments on Wednesday morning during the “Holding Domestic and International Competitions in the Modern Conditions of a Pandemic” video conference at the World Hockey Forum in Moscow (h/t NHL.com):
“We don’t think we can conduct an entire regular season that way. But circumstances, depending on where COVID[-19] is spiking and where the medical system is being taxed at any given time, may require us to adjust.
So, for example, we have a couple of clubs that can’t hold training camp or conduct games even without fans in their current buildings and facilities, and we’re going to have to move them somewhere else to play.
If enough teams can’t play, again, without fans, in their own facilities, then we may have to move more and more towards a hub. It may be that some teams are playing in other buildings. It may be that a whole group of teams have to play in other buildings.
One of the things that we’re doing for the regular season, as we’re planning it, is we’re going to just play within our divisions, so we’re not going to play every team against everybody else in the course of a season.”
This further confirms amNewYork Metro’s report last week that the New York Islanders were beginning to make the necessary preparations to play their home games at the Nassau Coliseum.
Dater’s report also indicated that it is highly unlikely that fans will not be in attendance inside arenas this season.
COVID-19 vaccines have begun to be distributed across North America as the continent is in the midst of another spike of the pandemic — one that is expected to jump even further after the holidays. With the hope that regular-season play can begin on Jan. 13 to kick off a 56-game season, strict protocols are expected to be put in place.
“We are focused on starting at some point hopefully in mid-January,” Bettman said. “… It is clear that we will not be playing an 82-game schedule for the regular season, which we normally do, but we’re going to try and play as many games as possible.”
The league has already teased regionally-driven divisions sparked by Canada closing its borders. All seven teams north of the border will play in an exclusive Canadian division while the remaining 24 US-based teams will be split into three divisions of eight.
A shortened season could very well feature a slate similar to the one Major League Baseball pieced together for their 60-game campaign in 2020 as NHL clubs will only play the six-to-seven other teams that are in their division.
For example, that means the New York Rangers and Islanders will exclusively play each other along with the other projected teams in their division: the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, and Buffalo Sabres.
The current path the NHL is on will ensure that there will be hockey in the New York City area for the first time since early-March. While the Rangers can return to their beloved Madison Square Garden, the Islanders will have an opportunity to bid a proper farewell to Nassau Coliseum — their home from 1972-2015 and sporadically since 2018 — in their last season before moving to their new home at Belmont Park.