NHL Season Set to Start in January: Format, Divisions, and Important Dates for 2021

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association reached an agreement on Friday night to start their next season on Jan. 13. That means hockey fans will begin enjoying a new NHL season less than four months after the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars in the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals this September.

2021 NHL season divisions realignment
The 2021 NHL season will feature four regionally realigned divisions, including a North division that hosts only the seven Canadian franchises. (Image: Codie McLachlan/Getty)

But fans shouldn’t expect business as usual for the 2021 NHL season. Let’s break down the many changes that will be in store for next year’s campaign, from the length of the regular season to the alignment of the league’s 31 teams.

Regular Season Wraps Up in May

For starters, beginning the season in January means fewer regular-season games. The NHL announced it will hold a 56-game season, which will wrap up on May 8. According to the league, teams will play games in their home cities.

“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 able to host fans,” the NHL said in a statement.

The good news for traditionalists is that the Stanley Cup Playoffs will include the standard 16 teams again this year, down from the 24 teams that made last season’s play-in round. All series will be best-of-seven. That’s about where any similarity to a normal NHL season ends.

Realignment Places Teams in Regional Divisions

In deference to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL will realign its four divisions into geographic regions this year. That means teams will play in the North, Central, East, or West division. The North division contains only the seven Canadian teams. In that Canadian (North) division, each team will play each opponent nine or 10 times. In the other three divisions, which contain eight teams each, each team will play against its rivals eight times.


2021 NHL Season Divisional Realignment
North Central East West
Calgary Flames Carolina Hurricanes Boston Bruins Anaheim Ducks
Edmonton Oilers Chicago Blackhawks Buffalo Sabres Arizona Coyotes
Montreal Canadians Columbus Blue Jackets New Jersey Devils Colorado Avalanche
Ottawa Senators Dallas Stars New York Islanders Los Angeles Kings
Toronto Maple Leafs Detroit Red Wings New York Rangers Minnesota Wild
Vancouver Canucks Florida Panthers Philadelphia Flyers San Jose Sharks
Winnipeg Jets Nashville Predators Pittsburgh Penguins St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning Washington Capitals Vegas Golden Knights

That eliminates any need for international travel for most of the season. Throughout the regular season, teams will only compete against opponents within their division. The top four teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs.

When the playoffs begin, teams will still only play opponents from their division in the first two rounds. Only after each division has played down to a single team will interdivisional play occur for the semifinals and the Stanley Cup Final.

Fehr: NHL Season Will Provide Pandemic Entertainment

Other changes to the NHL season include the elimination of preseason games and a shortened training-camp period that begins on Jan. 3. The seven teams that failed to make the playoffs last year can start as early as Dec. 31.

While the NHL has made some jarring changes, officials from both the league and the NHLPA say they hope getting back on the ice will provide some respite for fans during the pandemic.

“During these troubled times, we hope that NHL games will provide fans with some much needed entertainment as the players return to the ice,” NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr said.

FanDuel Sportsbook lists the Colorado Avalanche as the +700 favorite to win the 2021 Stanley Cup, ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights (+800) and Tampa Bay Lightning (+950).

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