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NHL 2020-21 season FAQ: Answering key questions ahead of unique year – Sportsnet.ca

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Just in time for the holiday season, NHL fans have something to celebrate as the league and its players officially announced plans for a 2020-21 NHL season.

The 56-game regular season is to begin Jan. 13, preceded by short training camps. If all goes according to plan, the regular season will wrap up May 8, playoffs will begin three days later, and the Stanley Cup will be awarded in mid-July.

While the next off-season would be compact and include an expansion draft, the plan for now is to return to a “regular” hockey season in 2021-22, with an October start for the regular season and June finish for the playoffs.

There are still details to iron out before certain specifics such as schedules and season start is locked in, but there is a confirmed, stated plan now. There is also optimism that what still needs to be resolved will be in time to keep all the target dates intact, though the NHL did acknowledge that it is prepared to adapt to ongoing uncertainty.

“Given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHLPA and the NHL intend to be flexible and adaptable in their approach during the coming weeks to ensure compliance with directives from both local and national governmental and health authorities focusing on the health and safety of the players, other game-related personnel and the communities in which we play. The priority will continue to be focused on the health and safety of our fans and Players and Club, League, NHLPA and arena personnel,” the league stated in a release.

We do have more clarity on how this will all come together now, though, and so here is a look at some key questions ahead of a new season.

What are the divisions and do they have names?

Realignment was necessary for this season, to keep travel as limited and regional as possible, and to avoid crossing national borders. This is what those divisions are planned to look like, including the names the NHL is currently giving them all, though that is still subject to change.

North: Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto-Winnipeg-Edmonton-Calgary-Vancouver

East: Boston-Buffalo-New Jersey-NY Islanders-NY Rangers-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington

Central: Carolina-Chicago-Columbus-Detroit-Florida-Dallas-Nashville-Tampa Bay

West: Anaheim-Arizona-Colorado-Minnesota-Los Angeles-Vegas-San Jose-St. Louis

This is the NHL’s current plan, though there are still details to work out in some of these markets…

Where will games be played?

For this season to get started on Jan. 13, there is still a lot of work to do as the league and some local health authorities discuss how to go about it safely and according to government guidelines. The NHL’s plan is to have all 31 teams playing games in their home arenas, but it’s not yet clear if that can happen everywhere.

A ban on contact sports in Santa Clara County, Calif., means the San Jose Sharks are already having to take their training camp to the Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz. Whether or not they’ll be able to return home in time for the start of regular season games is not yet clear.

“That’s not yet determined where those will be played,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said Sunday. “There’s a lot of factors still to go into that. If they can’t be played in Santa Clara there’s a couple potential options we’ve been exploring. Just like we were exploring sites for training camp. Could be a hub city, could be us playing in another NHL city for a while. Until we see our schedule I don’t think we’ll know which and how many games will be affected.”

And then there’s the big question that still surrounds the whole Canadian Division (more on that later). Chris Johnston reported last week that a deal had not yet been reached between the league and all relevant authorities on allowing travel in and out of each city. Those negotiations are ongoing and the NHL’s plan to follow regulations and assuage concerns includes testing players at least every other day (possibly more than that) and restricting movement in each city to basically the hotel and rink. It’s an attempt to create a sort of bubble.

Details of the NHL’s health and safety protocols will be released in the coming days.

“It’s possible that if one or more of the Canadian teams aren’t able to get the provincial sign off they need that they may start off on the road, but it’s a little soon to say that for sure is going to happen,” Johnston said in a recent appearance on Sportsnet Central.

While discussions over starting the regular season in Canada is still ongoing, agreements have been reached to allow the opening of facilities for the start of training camp in six of the seven cities, with Montreal as the only one yet to get sign off, though it’s optimistic that will get done.

When will training camps open?

For the seven teams that did not return to play in the summer (Buffalo, Detroit, New Jersey, Ottawa, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose), training camps will open Dec. 31. All other teams will open four days later on Jan. 3.

Training camp rosters will be capped at 36 skaters (forwards and defencemen) this season, with an unlimited amount of goaltenders. There will be no exhibition games this season.

What is the taxi squad?

The salary cap remains at $81.5 million and teams will be permitted to have a 23-man roster that is compliant with that number. But, because of travel restrictions and potential quarantine rules if a player must be called up from the AHL on short notice, NHL teams will now also be allowed to carry a taxi squad of four-to-six players in the 2020-21 season.

Taxi squad players will be permitted to practice and travel with the NHL team, but will only count against the cap or be allowed to play in a game if they are “called up” to the pro roster. These moves will be subject to regular re-call rules, so if a player would require waivers to be sent from the pro roster to the AHL, he will similarly need to pass waivers to be sent back to the taxi squad. Contract rules will also be in effect — a player on a one-way contract who is assigned to the taxi squad will receive their full NHL salary, while those on two-way contracts would receive their minor league pay while on the taxi squad.

Teams must carry a minimum of three goalies with them at all times, whether it’s all three on the pro roster, or one available on the taxi squad. Players on the taxi squad will not be permitted to practice or play with any other organization outside of the NHL team.

When will we see a regular season schedule and what will it look like?

The NHL will release a schedule in the coming days, likely after it gets more clarity on some of the previously mentioned sites. What we do know is that regular season games will only be intra-divisional, so teams will get very familiar with each other even in the shortened season.

Each team in the East, Central, and West divisions will play one another eight times, while those in the North (or Canadian) division will see each other nine or 10 times. That’s a whole lotta Battle of Alberta.

You can also expect a very compact schedule, more back-to-backs than usual, and the possibility that road trips will now include multiple games against a host team.

If the season begins at the target date of Jan. 13 and ends May 8, that’s 56 games in 116 days, or one game every 2.07 days. In a normal 82-game season, teams would play a game roughly every 2.28 days.

Can players opt-out?

Players can opt-out without penalty and the deadline to do so is seven days prior to the opening of their team’s training camp.

If a player opts out, they will not receive their salary for the season or count towards the salary cap, and their contract will be “tolled” to the following season. That means that a player who opts out would still owe the team that year of play under their contract (an opt-out player with one year left on their deal would still owe that season in 2021-22; an opt-out player with three years left on their contract would have that same term heading into the 2021-22 season).

However, teams will have the option to forgo tolling a contract year, but must make that decision within 30 days of the player’s decision to opt-out.

What will the format be for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

The top four teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs. The first two rounds will be best-of-seven series and also be intra-divisional, with the first round pitting the first seed against the fourth, and the second against the third. Each division will produce a winner, at which point the last four teams standing will be re-seeded based on regular season point totals, and again put first place against fourth, and second place against third.

Conferences will not be considered this season, so now it would be possible to have, say, a Toronto-Boston, Colorado-Dallas, Vancover-Vegas, or Montreal-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Final.

It is not yet clear where those final two series would be played, or if a bubble would be required again. Those details will be figured out at a later date and be determined by the safety regulations at the time, but the hope would be that each team would host games in their own arena.

How will the Seattle expansion draft be affected?

In case you’ve forgotten, a new team is going to join the league for the 2021-22 season, so while GMs are already being forced into difficult decisions because of the pandemic’s financial impact on the league, they also have to deal with an impending expansion draft. Everyone will have to give up a player to the Seattle Kraken with the exception of the Vegas Golden Knights, as the 2017 expansion team is exempt.

The rules from the Vegas expansion draft will be identical for Seattle. Every team but Vegas must meet the minimum requirements for players exposed to the Kraken, which was identified as such prior to the pandemic:

i) One defenceman who is a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.

ii) Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.

iii) One goaltender who is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the expiration of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22. If the club elects to make a restricted free agent goaltender available in order to meet this requirement, that goaltender must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the club’s protected list.

Because of the shortened 2020-21 season, these games played requirements will be prorated for a 56-game schedule. Players with no-move clauses have to automatically be protected by their teams unless an agreement is made to waive it. The deadline to make that decision is July 13.

All teams except Vegas must submit their protected lists by July 17. Starting on July 18 Seattle will have the opportunity to speak with any RFA or UFA who was left unprotected from the expansion draft, something no other team can do until free agency opens on July 28. Seattle could sign these players prior to the July 21 expansion draft, though that player would then count as the selection from their former team’s roster.

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Chiefs QB Mahomes practises, still in protocol – TSN

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes remained in the NFL’s concussion protocol Wednesday, but practiced in a limited capacity, raising hopes that the reigning Super Bowl MVP can play in Sunday’s AFC title game against Buffalo.

The Chiefs typically breeze through their midweek practice with little contact before ramping things up with their longest workout Thursday, and coach Andy Reid said afterward that fit perfectly with what Mahomes was able to do.

“He looked good,” Reid said. “He’s in the protocol so there’s only certain things he can do, but he took all the snaps and he feels good. So, I mean, we’re just going to follow this protocol as close as we possibly can.”

There are five steps in the league’s return-to-play protocol: rest until signs and symptoms return to baseline clearance to begin cardio; stretching and balance training with medical oversight; an increase in exercises that includes monitored strength training; the resumption of non-contact football activities; and finally, the player is cleared by team physicians and passes an independent neurological exam, at which point he is cleared to practice and play.

Reid didn’t specify which step Mahomes was in Wednesday, but the work he described coincides with the fourth step. If all goes well, that could mean the Chiefs’ quarterback is cleared to participate more fully in practice Thursday or Friday.

“He’s done well up to this point and they just progress you through the day,” Reid said, “so today was limited work and no contact, I think was the schedule for today. And that’s kind of what we’re doing on Wednesday, so it fit perfectly with that.”

Mahomes was hurt in the third quarter of last Sunday’s 22-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns when he was tackled around the neck while keeping the ball on a quarterback option. His head did not appear to strike the ground hard — if at all — and that led to reports that he had tweaked a nerve that runs up the neck.

Chad Henne finished the game and would be the starter if Mahomes was unable to play against the Bills.

“It’s definitely not the easiest if you don’t get the reps during the week,” Henne said, “but mentally you have to stay in it. When Patrick was in last week, during every practice, Matt (Moore) and I are in the back doing our drops, our progressions. That doesn’t change. After practice we get the throws we need that Patrick took and we go about our business.”

The return of Mahomes was only the start of the positive injury news for Kansas City.

Defensive back Bashaud Breeland, who also left the Browns game with a concussion, got in some limited work as the Chiefs moved practice from outdoors inside because of gusty winds.

The availability of their No. 1 cornerback is important with Bills quarterback Josh Allen riding a hot streak and All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs coming to town.

Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and wide receiver Sammy Watkins also practiced Wednesday, which means the Chiefs could have a full complement of playmakers regardless of their quarterback for the first time in weeks.

Edwards-Helaire, who was fourth among rookies with 1,100 yards from scrimmage this season, sustained a high-ankle sprain in Week 15 against New Orleans and missed the final two games of the regular season. He returned to practice last Wednesday but was held out the next two days, and he was inactive for the Chiefs’ playoff game against Cleveland.

The injury-prone Watkins hurt his calf muscle in Week 15 against Atlanta. He sat out the regular-season finale and did not practice last week, joining Edwards-Helaire on the inactive list for the Browns.

“It’ll be good to have both of those guys back,” Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman said. “Hopefully they can play with us and take the necessary steps to be fully healthy or healthy enough to get some production from them.”

NOTES: The only player who did not practice in some capacity Wednesday was linebacker Willie Gay Jr. He’s been out with a sprained ankle. … Diggs isn’t the only All-Pro wide receiver on the field Sunday, and Chiefs counterpart Tyreek Hill was sure to make everyone remember it. He continually referenced a dig by Jalen Ramsey from a couple of years ago, when the Jaguars cornerback made it a point to say Hill had been voted an All-Pro as a return specialist as a rookie. “(Diggs) is one of the top receivers in the game and I really respect him,” Hill said, “so we just got to see who has the better game, him or (Travis) Kelce, but I’m still just a return specialist.”

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Report: Michael Brantley agrees to two-year deal with Astros – Sportsnet.ca

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Free-agent outfielder Michael Brantley is reportedly staying with the Houston Astros.

According to Fox 26 Houston‘s Mark Berman, Brantley and the Astros have agreed to a two-year deal worth $32 million.

Brantley, 33, has been in Houston since 2019. Last season, he averaged .300 at the plate while hitting five home runs and recording 22 RBI.

The outfielder has made the American League All-Star team four times in his career – once with the Astros in 2019 and three times while in Cleveland. He also won an AL Silver Slugger award in 2014.

The Toronto Blue Jays were previously in discussions with Brantley, with multiple outlets including Sportsnet reporting earlier Wednesday that a deal was in place with the free agent. A Blue Jays team official later refuted the report.

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Oilers, Maple Leafs electric on offence, but can either improve defence? – Sportsnet.ca

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When COVID concerns put a stop to the 2019-20 NHL season, the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs sat tied in a telling defensive category, averaging around 2.7 goals against for every 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. That number doesn’t sound awful, but sprinkle in somewhere between 40-60 power play goals against (as is common in a full NHL season), and suddenly you have to score a whole lot just to get to the break-even number.

I say “tied” for simplicity’s sake, technically the Leafs were .01 worse in that category at 2.71. The Senators were right there with the Oilers and Leafs, while the Panthers, Sharks, Devils and Red Wings were the only teams worse in this stat — AKA the draft lottery teams.

Shots against per 60, unblocked shot attempts per 60, expected goals against per 60, almost all the “fancy” stats had both Toronto and Edmonton in the bottom half of the league.

The Leafs and Oilers stunk defensively, full stop.

Those are all just “against” numbers at 5-on-5 though. By and large, if you sort the numbers for total percentages (like goals for percentage, all strengths), both teams climb into the better half of the league, because if we know anything about these teams, it’s that they can score – particularly the top lines. The Oilers’ special teams were absurdly good last year, and the Leafs have balanced out their weak defensive numbers by playing high event hockey both ways at all strengths.

It’s really those elite guys who compel me to compare these operations at all. The Oilers have two Hart Trophy winners age 25 and under, to go with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. The Leafs have five players in their top six who went first, first, first, fourth and eighth overall. Both teams go as those groups go, they rely on them to give them a chance, and both teams get shut down when their top names aren’t going.

Both teams have for some years now looked at their back ends, squinted, and said “But if he has a career year, and that guy takes a step, and everyone stays healthy, our D isn’t that bad.”

And so it goes with Edmonton and Toronto. They’re two speedboats constantly using offence to bail water from porous defences, never quite sinking but not winning any important races either. In the sprint-length race that is the 2021 NHL regular season, the team that figures out how to finally patch those holes, rather than bail faster, is far more likely to accomplish their goals than the other.

Just a few months back in the play-in round against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Oilers scored 15 times in four games and won … once. The Leafs have lost three straight playoff series in deciding games, conceding a total of 15 goals against in those three games.

I realize I’m beating the dead horse here, but both teams have long identified their team weakness, and have sought to improve it. The Oilers have drafted well and have prospects on the way, while the Leafs have moved aggressively to add established NHLers to their back end.

What we’re left with at this point is asking what the likelihood is of that improvement happening?

Will the Oilers be able to get those holes patched?

To date this season the Oilers have allowed 15 goals through four games, which is worse than their goals against per game last season, though granted it’s absurdly early.

Their odds took a significant blow when it was ruled that their best defenceman, Oscar Klefbom, would be out for the season, which put them behind the eight-ball immediately.

It also didn’t help that what was likely the Oilers’ off-season plan – signing Jacob Markstrom – fell through entirely, leaving them with a goaltending duo that will almost certainly finish in the statistical bottom-third of the league.

I summed up my questions about the Oilers on Twitter a few nights back:

Sufficient answers never came.

So far this season they’ve already scratched defencemen Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, in hopes of plugging in more defensive defensemen in Adam Larsson and William Lagesson, but it’s unlikely that’s going to be the long-term fix for this team this year.

There are some positives, though. For one, defending is a mindset and can be coached, and the Oilers have a good one in Dave Tippett. But more than that, I think the Oilers have just had a rough start, and that a pretty good Montreal Canadiens team got the better of them in ways that would be internally eye-opening, but not worthy of panic. Sometimes it’s as simple as “our group can play better than that,” and there’s at least some element of that here.

Klefbom will be sorely missed, and the goaltending is unlikely to become a bright spot, but I do believe that somewhere in this mix is a six-man group that can allow the forwards to do what they do enough – outscore their problems – to keep them at the very least a playoff team:

Nurse-Koekkoek
Russell-Barrie
Bear-Jones
Lagesson-Larsson

I don’t think there’s much reason to believe it’s going to be great defensively in Edmonton. But with all their talent, it only needs to be good.

Will the Leafs be able to get those holes patched?

If you talk to their die-hard fans, they already have. There’s a belief among the fanbase that TJ Brodie puts them in a spot that gives the team a very good top-four (with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl), and that surely there are enough options amongst the rest to find a good pair (that being Zach Bogosian, Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin and Mikko Lehtonen). And it’s possible those fans are right.

The less confident may consider how Rielly defends with an offensive lean, and the name Justin Holl in there – and the odd rough Brodie showing – and go “Yeah, that’s your plan? Those are the materials that are going to keep the water from rushing in?”

Freddy Andersen remains a wild card for this season, but he’s not far removed from playing excellent hockey, so there’s a “wait and see” element in net.

Up front, the Leafs have shuffled their lineup to become more defensively stout as well. John Tavares is being deployed almost exclusively in an offensive role so far this year, leaving the heavier matchups for their newly formed “shut-down” group of Ilya-Mikheyev-Alex Kerfoot-Zach Hyman. It’s another test case, but it’s at least a plan that isn’t just hoping things change on their own, somehow.

The rest of the forward group will never have a defensive bent, but you can at least see the team has made a real effort to patch up their defensive shortcomings of yore.

In the end, that’s all it comes down to for these two talented teams: Will they make keeping the puck out of their own net as much of a priority as putting it in the other one?

There’s no shortage of coaches who’ll tell you that more offence comes when you’re in good positions under the puck, and numerous Stanley Cup contenders over the past decade have proved that true. It’s a tough sell from the coach, though.

As Edmonton and Toronto get set to do battle twice in the next three nights, most fans are excited to see explosions of offence all over the ice.

But I promise you, behind closed doors, both teams are prioritizing the opposite.

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