The National Hockey League and its Players Association came to a formal agreement on Sunday afternoon, setting in motion the next season of NHL hockey come Jan. 13. With the new campaign will come several major changes: to the schedule, whether fans will be allowed, and playoff matchups due to the pandemic. The league hopes the climate improves by the end of the season to start approaching some normalcy for next year.
With that in mind, here are some important questions answered for what’s ahead in the next six to eight months for the Washington Capitals.
What Will the Season Look Like?
Washington will be placed in a temporary East Division along with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The other “normal” Metropolitan Division foes, the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, will be part of the new Central Division, and won’t see the Caps in the regular-season.
All teams will play 56 games, all against those seven opponents, eight times apiece. There will be no games against non-divisional opponents until the third round of the playoffs, making for a throwback to Washington’s old Patrick Division days when rivalries with their opponents were fueled by numerous meetings and the top four teams in the division qualifying for the postseason.
Training camps will begin for the Capitals on Jan. 3, and there will be no preseason contests before the puck drops on the regular season 10 days later.
The regular season will start on Wednesday, Jan. 13, and run to Saturday, May 8. There will also be some flexibility built into the season in case a particular team or series needs to be moved, and there are going to be contingency plans if a team needs to move home games out of their arena.
The top four teams from each division will qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the top four teams playing each other in the first two rounds with the top regular-season team playing the fourth, and the second playing the third. Six of the East’s eight teams made the league’s 24-team bubble over the summer, with only Buffalo and New Jersey missing the cut.
This also means the Capitals could end up playing up to two of their divisional foes up to 15 times apiece this season.
The winner of the East Division bracket will play one of the survivors of the other three divisions, depending on the point totals of the East winner, with the top division winner point-getter playing the fourth-best, with the other two squaring off in the third round. The Stanley Cup is expected to be awarded in early July, which would be the latest the Cup has ever been handed out, not including the Tampa Bay Lightning’s win in the bubble this past season.
The hope is the climate will be favorable for a return to a “normal” hockey calendar for 2021-22, with a return to the 82-game schedule and divisions, although with the addition of the Seattle Kraken.
What About Fans?
As for having fans in the stands, the Capitals will start off play at Capital One Arena without any paid attendees, as will most teams in the NHL. The arena will be subject to regulations of the District of Columbia, which has been one of the most stringent locales in the United States since the pandemic began, so it is unclear if fans will be allowed at Capital One Arena by the time the regular season concludes in May, or if they will be allowed should the team qualifies for the postseason.
Washington won’t be alone in that regard in their division, either, as it seems unlikely any of the other seven East division teams will be allowed to have fans to start the campaign. Pennsylvania has been the only state to at any point allow fans at indoor sporting events since March, and the Flyers and Penguins will be subject to local city ordinances before allowing fans at their home buildings.
The Bruins are hopeful they can allow fans at TD Garden by March, while it seems unlikely the New York State teams will have indoor fans anytime soon, along with New Jersey.
The NHL isn’t prohibiting fans at their events like Major League Baseball did this past season with the exception of the National League Championship and World Series, but expects most buildings to be empty to start the year. The buildings that may allow fans right away are the Florida teams, as well as the Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights.
What About the Roster?
While the 23-man roster will be used this season, it also will see the implementation of an NFL-style taxi squad of four to six players, meaning teams will carry in reality up to 29 players. Taxi squad players will be paid their full American Hockey League salaries, and will travel and practice with the NHL club.
Teams will also be required to carry three goaltenders at all times, and for Washington with their recent news about Henrik Lundqvist sitting out the year, it means unless they sign or trade for another goaltender, Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley will likely be part of the club for the season barring another addition.
The other question for taxi squads will be the state of the AHL, which is undetermined at this point, but there is a goal to start a truncated season by early February. While some teams could opt out for the season and require the taxi squad to be a place for call-ups, the Hershey Bears likely would play if there is an AHL season, especially since Pennsylvania likely will allow indoor crowds this season.
However, for the first few weeks of the season, Washington would likely carry whomever the Bears would normally have that would be a quick recall, and some of their deeper prospects who would not be quick recalls could be sent to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, one of the teams in that league who are currently playing.
What About Television?
The Capitals figure to have all their games broadcast on either local or national television, as been the case for the past few seasons, but the games won’t look quite the same.
It is expected that the home team announcers will be calling games live from the arena, while visiting teams will have their broadcasts called from a studio in their home market. This is similar to Major League Baseball’s recently completed season, where the television and radio were called largely from the home team’s ballpark – whether the game was a home game or not.
While NBC Sports Washington used this method before the pandemic for preseason games, it had not used it for the regular season with its broadcast team traveling to the road city. It did call the bubble games in Toronto remotely, and it is expected that will continue at least for the 2020-21 regular season.
What About the Travel?
It is expected the NHL will release its schedule this week, with some baseball-style series scheduled. With every team playing four games at each of the other seven buildings, the expectation that teams may knock out two games at a time on one stop of the road trip.
While the East will have the by far easiest travel in the league – the two furthest cities from Washington are Boston and Buffalo, each less than an hour’s flight from Dulles Airport, it is still expected the team may play a couple of games in each stop of a road trip, particularly with the close proximity of the New York area clubs.
It also means the Capitals will not travel outside the Eastern Time Zone until at least around Memorial Day should they advance, and also will play just eight games not in close proximity to teams near Interstate 95. While the North, or Canadian Division, and West Division will cover three time zones, East teams will have relatively easy travel this season.
The compressed schedule will also have teams playing 56 games in less than four months, meaning roughly 15 games per month will be needed to run the schedule, and the travel time is expected to be reduced league-wide with this type of schedule.
What About Ovechkin’s Chase of Gretzky?
With 706 regular-season goals coming into the regular season, Alex Ovechkin currently is in eighth place in the NHL’s all-time goalscorers list, and the Capitals’ captain will have lost 26 games this season in the chase for Wayne Gretzky’s all-time mark of 894.
While Ovechkin will need a few more seasons of production to chase down the Great One’s mark, he will be able to move up on the list fairly quickly this season.
He currently trails former Capital Mike Gartner by two goals, Phil Esposito by 11, Marcel Dionne by 25 and Brett Hull by 35 goals. Ovechkin scored 48 goals in 68 games before the pause in 2019-20, and at that pace, he would score 40 goals in a 56-game season, so if he manages to match that pace, he would enter 2021-22 in fourth place all-time, with only Jaromir Jagr, Gordie Howe and Gretzky ahead of him.
Of course, this also is the final year of Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124 million contract with Washington with him being an unrestricted free agent this season, but it is exceedingly unlikely he would end up on another NHL team come October.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.