NHL, NHLPA formally approve 56-game season; Bruins to play in revamped ‘East’ Division

(Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

It's official — NHL hockey is set to return in 2021.

The NHL and  National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) announced an agreement on Sunday to play a 2020-21 regular-season schedule of 56 games — beginning Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, and concluding on May 8. The framework of this new campaign was initially agreed upon by the league and NHLPA on Friday, pending final approval by both the Board of Governors (BOG) and the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will again feature 16 teams in a traditional best-of-seven, four-round format and will end around mid-July. Although this represents a later finish than most NHL campaigns, the plan is for the league to return to “normal” hockey calendar for the 2021-22 season — in which regular-season play will begin again in October 2021.

“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 a league release. “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.”

As expected, the ongoing closure of the U.S./Canadian border will necessitate realigned divisions for the COVID-impacted 2021 season, with the Bruins holding court in a revamped "East" Division.

Here are the four new divisions for the 2021 NHL season:

The Bruins — who will do battle with an "East" grouping featuring the likes of the Sabres, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals — will play every other team in their division eight times in this new compressed schedule. The Central and West Divisions will follow a similar schedule, while teams in the All-Canadian North Division will play each other nine or 10 times.

The top four teams in each division will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with intra-divisional play featured in the first two rounds (No. 1 seed vs. No. 4 seed / No. 2 seed vs. No. 3 seed). The four teams that advance to the Semifinal Round would be seeded by their regular season points total, with the No. 1 seed playing the No. 4 seed in one series and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds meeting in the other.

The Bruins and the 24 other teams that advanced to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs up in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles will indeed open training camp on Jan. 3, while the seven teams that didn't take part in the league's "Return To Play" plans this past summer will open their camps as early as Dec. 31. There will be no preseason games scheduled.

The league also added that the "current plan" is to play games in home arenas for the 2021 season, "while understanding that most arenas will not, at least in the initial part of the season, be able to host fans." The statement did add that health and safety restrictions set in place by state/provincial authorities could force the league "to play games in one or more 'neutral site' venues per division should it become necessary."

This could become pertinent given that the NHL has not been given definite approval by all five provincial governments up in Canada as of right now. If one health authority (British Columbia?) isn't budging on the league's demands, the likely scenario would involve moving just one team (the Canucks, in this example) to a neutral site for the start of this new season, rather than drastically overhaul this entire All-Canadian division.

The NHL and NHLPA plans to release Health and Safety Protocols, transition rules, critical dates and a the 2020-21 schedule in the coming days, but multiple reports have already mapped out some key dates to keep tabs on in this reshuffled league calendar.

Here are a few key dates to be aware of, per TSN's Pierre LeBrun.

Season Start: Jan. 13

NHL trade deadline: April 12

End of regular season: May 8

2021 Seattle expansion draft: July 21

2021 NHL draft: July 23-24

2021 free agency: July 28

There will be plenty of additional details set to drop in the coming days, and BSJ will have you covered every step of the way as the Bruins brace themselves for a season unlike any other.