NHL plans for return to 82-game schedule, previous divisions next season

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The NHL is hoping and planning for a 2021-22 season with a full 82-game schedule and fully vaccinated players returning to pre-COVID-19 conditions.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on Monday briefed general managers on the guidelines for next season and a variety of other topics in a video conference called by senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell.

The regular season will begin in October and end in April followed by the Stanley Cup Playoffs concluding in June.

Fully vaccinated players will be able to travel without protocols and work out on and off the ice without limitations on the size of the group and without being tested for COVID-19, presuming vaccination rates in the United States and Canada continue to climb and the Canada government loosens travel restrictions.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association continue to discuss the procedures for unvaccinated players.

After temporarily realigning and playing a 56-game, intradivisional schedule this season because of COVID-19, the NHL is planning to return to its previous schedule format, with each team playing all the others at least twice, and its previous divisional alignment, with the Metropolitan Division and Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference and the Central Division and Pacific Division in the Western Conference.

As previously planned, the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division to make room in the Pacific Division for the expansion Seattle Kraken, who begin play next season.

The NHL plans to release the 2021-22 schedule before the 2021 NHL Draft on July 23-24. The NHL is working on two versions of the schedule — one that includes a break for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and another that does not — pending the resolution to ongoing discussions with the NHLPA and the International Olympic Committee.

The NHL did not participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics after its players competed in five consecutive Olympics from 1998-2014. The NHL position has been that participation in the Olympics disrupts the NHL season, particularly when not held in North America.

But last year, when the NHL and NHLPA extended the collective bargaining agreement through 2025-26, they agreed to go to the Olympics if they could reach an agreement with the International Olympic Committee.

During a press conference before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 28, Commissioner Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Daly said those negotiations were ongoing, but the sides were running out of time to reach an agreement.

“We negotiated in good faith with the Players’ Association last summer,” Deputy Commissioner Daly said. “We agreed that if the conditions were right and we could reach agreement on all the material issues that we would commit and support going to the Olympics, and that remains our position. We’ve deferred to the Players’ Association to try to work through those issues, and that continues, as I said, to be a work in progress.”

The GMs also spent about 45 minutes Monday focusing on the officiating standard for the cross-checking penalty. Continuing a discussion that began in a small-group breakout session on cross-checking at the GMs’ previous in-person meeting, in March 2020, NHL senior vice president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom led a review of video clips.

The GMs conducted similar reevaluations in the past on the officiating standard for slashing, hooking and holding. The discussion on cross-checking will continue during a video conference meeting of the NHL Competition Committee on Tuesday, but no rule change is planned. 

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