The next 24 to 48 hours should offer insight into the Detroit Red Wings’ 2020-21 season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to release details about next season’s start date, temporary division realignment and maybe even a schedule. The division adjustments are, of course, a result of border restrictions between Canada and the USA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Any announcement from Bettman will be welcome; no NHL hockey in November or December is going to be tough enough without a definitive plan!
Red Wings Reunited With Old Foes
Temporary new divisions could re-establish old rivalries with multiple games against the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Depending on which option the NHL chooses, I think there are two, Detroit will likely be put with more Western than Eastern Conference teams, since that is where they played for 19 seasons (1993-94 through 2012-13) before joining the Atlantic Division in 2013.
Being in the Western Conference was a disadvantage for the Red Wings who were the only team located in the Eastern time zone. That will not be the case this time around as Bettman has hinted that divisions will ultimately be designed by region for reduced travel. Therefore, the Red Wings should be within the same time zone as all their opponents.
Known & Unknown Season Details
Before speculating further on potential divisional opponents, it is important to outline some of the details set out by Bettman last week. He has stated that the 2020-21 regular season should be no less than 48 games. The timeline appears to include a New Years Day start date and naming a Stanley Cup winner before July. That makes 48 regular-season games the maximum feasible amount in a six-month time frame.
The number of divisions will be another key factor to consider (see The Score article linked above). Should the NHL opt for smaller divisions based on geographic location, they could do that with five divisions: the American teams would be clustered together in groups of six teams within four divisions and the seven-team Canadian division would mean an extra team north of the 49th would miss the playoffs.
The other option is the normal four-division format which would put Detroit at a disadvantage as they would be in an eight-team division where four miss the playoffs. An eight-team division would likely mean stiffer competition and more travel for the Red Wings.
If geography is the most important, especially stateside, the NHL will go with five divisions. This might cause an uproar in Canada as an extra team could be eliminated from the playoffs, but it seems like the most reasonable solution given the constraints.
A five-division format would mean the top-three teams in each division would make the playoffs and there would be just one wild card team. Am I wrong or does that seem enticing?
In the five-division format, the teams lumped in with the Red Wings would likely be the fellow original-six Blackhawks, Blues, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, and the furthest geographical competitor, the Dallas Stars. Interestingly, the closest American city to Detroit is Columbus. Yet, it makes more sense for the Columbus Blue Jackets to play in the Northeast.
Where Would the Wings Finish?
Any which way you look at it the Red Wings will be in tough for another season. However, Chicago has already committed to a rebuild, the Wild will be strong defensively, but the forward crew has undergone a significant makeover, and the Predators are an enigma – they were expected to be solid last season, but something seemed off and that could happen again in 2020-21.
That leaves the Blues and 2020 Western Conference champion Stars. My guess is that those teams will finish one-two in this hypothetical division with the Blues on top.
Could the Red Wings compete for a spot in the top three? Maybe. In a shortened schedule anything is possible with a quick start. Stability in the crease with the addition of Thomas Greiss might make a good start feasible. Veteran Bobby Ryan has something to prove to himself and the rest of the league (I am rooting for Ryan).
Lastly, can any of the young prospects step up and have a breakout season? The two Filips – Zadina and Hronek – could be on the cusp. Hronek has added incentive as he becomes a restricted free agent next offseason. Perhaps Michael Rasmussen or Dennis Cholowski will be able to take on a bigger than expected role with the club.
There are more questions than answers, but it has been that kind of a year. That said, in the near future we will know when to expect the start of 2020-21 and what the Red Wings’ new divisional competition looks like.