When the 2019-20 season concluded this fall, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Jan. 1 as the tentative date to start the next campaign. However, New Year’s Day is in less than a month, and we are still waiting to hear when training camps will open. It’s relatively safe to say the league is not going to hit that deadline. The latest reports peg the NHL season beginning in the middle of January.
“(The Jan. 1 start date) is a work in progress, influenced by what we’re hearing from the medical experts,” Bettman said on Dec. 2 in an online interview during the Sports Business Journal’s Dealmakers in Sports conference.
The same could be said about what the divisions will look like whenever the season gets rolling. While they also remain a work in progress, multiple news outlets are indicating major division realignment for the 2020-21 season.
In an ESPN+ column on Nov. 19, Greg Wyshynski wrote that the league is mulling a switch to a four-division format for the 2020-21 season only based on geography to reduce travel. Since the Canadian border is closed to non-essential travel, Wyshynski reported there will be a seven-team all-Canadian division, plus eight-team East, Central, and West divisions. The NHL has not confirmed this information.
The Philadelphia Flyers, as expected, are in the East Division. However, there are a few notable surprises.
First and foremost, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not in the East. It’s hard to fathom a season where the Penguins don’t compete against the Flyers and other typical Metropolitan rivals like the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers, but when the league is attempting to cut down travel it makes sense.
Also omitted are the Columbus Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres have been added in the East.
What Does This Realignment Mean for the Flyers?
The Flyers were 16-4-4 against teams in the Metro Division last season. It was their best divisional record compared to the Atlantic (14-6-1), Central (5-4), and Pacific (6-7-2) divisions.
Now, let’s take a look at the Flyers’ readjusted division and see if there is a difference. They went 4-0 against the Blue Jackets, but lost both meetings in regulation with the Penguins last season. Conversely, the Flyers won two-out-of-three games vs. the Bruins and swept the pair against the Sabres. If you are keeping score at home, they went 4-2 against the two teams that are leaving the division and 4-1 against the ones joining it. So, basically, it’s a wash.
The Flyers are neither gaining nor losing any advantage if the NHL were to give these divisions the thumbs up based on last season’s results.
What Might the Flyers’ Schedule Look Like?
In addition to failing to figure out a start date, the NHL and NHLPA have not yet agreed on how many games will be included in the schedule. The two sides are negotiating a 52- and 56-game schedule, which would allow the Stanley Cup Final to end in July. No details have been released but expect teams in the U.S. to play the bulk of their games against teams in their division.
There are a couple of different scenarios the league can consider. The easiest, with a 56-game slate, is for each team in the U.S. to play every team in their division eight times, split between four at home and four on the road. That equals 56 games.
Or, the Flyers could play six games against the East (three at home and three on the road), which would give them 42 games. Then, the league can set up a home-and-home matchup with six teams in the Central, and just one game against two other teams in the Central, to reach 56. However, the league will need to get more creative to make a 52- or 56-game schedule work with the seven-team Canadian Division.
Flyers Lose and Gain a Rival
Sure, Flyers fans will miss the opportunity to beat the Penguins and boo Sidney Crosby – probably from their couch, though. Penguins games are always must-watch TV or the hardest ticket to find in Philadelphia.
With the offseason moves the Penguins have made, the Flyers appear superior on paper. This might have been the season the Flyers reverse their misfortune against the Pens. In the last five years, the Flyers are 7-9-3 vs. Pittsburgh.
On the flip side, Philly has developed a solid rivalry with the Bruins. Brad Marchand, who had an embarrassing failed shootout attempt last winter, has slowly turned into villain No. 3 – following Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – among Flyers fans. Besides, the two towns already dislike each other in basketball and football.
Who knows how the divisions will look when all is said and done. Whether you are in favor of the final verdict or staunchly against it, the new look is probably here for just the 2020-21 season. Hopefully, the pandemic will be under control by the time the 2021-22 season approaches, and the NHL divisions will return to normal.