There’s barely a month to go until the NHL’s targeted start date of Jan. 1, 2021. Yet the league, its teams and its players don’t yet seem to be close to reaching consensus on crucial issues: how long the season schedule will be, where the games will be played, or how much compensation the players will receive.
Before the return to play his summer, the league’s owners agreed to a four-year extension to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Contingencies were put in place to deal with lost revenue due to the pandemic, but now the owners are now looking for further concessions. Players already agreed to play for 72% of their base salaries this season. They’re in no mood to give more than they already have.
Settling these financial issues might very well end up impacting the rest of the league’s return-to-play plan.
But setting that aside for a moment, it seems like the preferred strategy would be to split the league into four divisions for regular-season play. Clubs would play in their home arenas and most games would be grouped together in two or three-game back-to-backs between the same teams.
That would allow individual clubs to collect revenue from some of their team-level sponsors. It would also minimize travel expenses and, hopefully, limit the risk of Covid-19 exposure.
New Division Alignment?
The U.S./Canadian border remains closed. We’ve been hearing for months that a seven-team Canadian Division is highly probable. Last week, Greg Wyshynski of ESPN also laid out how the 24 stateside clubs could be grouped.
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) November 19, 2020
For the Flyers, they’d share the new ‘East Division’ with five of their usual Metropolitan Division Rivals — the Hurricanes, Devils, Islanders, Rangers and Capitals. The Bruins and Sabres would replace the Penguins and Blue Jackets.
Travel-wise, this format is about as good as it gets for the Flyers. They’d swap out a 90-minute flight to Columbus and about 75 minutes to Pittsburgh for about 75-80 minutes to get to both Boston and Buffalo. The farthest the Flyers would travel would be the roughly 400 miles to Raleigh — also about a 90-minute flight.
Contrast that with the Canadian Division, where Vancouver’s *closest* rival, Calgary, is about 600 miles away. Cross-country flights from Montreal to Vancouver take about four and a half hours and cover 2,800 miles.
Teams in the East would also gain the most rest and recovery time. They’d eliminate all trips to far-flung locations like California, Florida and Western Canada.
In terms of opposition, the Flyers would be adding an elite team in the Bruins and a not-so-good squad in the Sabres. The 2020 Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins finished with 100 points when the season was paused in March, 11 more than sixth-overall Philadelphia.
The Flyers squeezed out two shootout wins against Boston last year. They also dropped a 2-0 shutout loss right before the pause on March 10. But the Bruins could look very different next season. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand are recovering from offseason surgey. Torey Krug is now a member of the St. Louis Blues. And the future of soon-to-be 44-year-old captain Zdeno Chara still up in the air.
If the Bruins take a step back next season, will the Sabres be better? The signing of Taylor Hall and the trade for Eric Staal makes their forward group look distinctly different. Also, second-year coach Ralph Krueger is widely respected for getting the most out of his players. But Buffalo’s coming back with the same goaltending tandem and essentially the same defense — and the Sabres finished 22nd last season in goals against per game.
Head-to-head, the Flyers handled the Sabres easily in both their meetings last season, winning 6-1 and 3-1.
Old Rivals – The Challengers
Of the five familiar foes, the Capitals finished one point above the Flyers last season, fifth overall in the league. They flamed out in their first-round playoff matchup against the New York Islanders. In four games against Washington last season, the Flyers went 3-0-1, losing in a shootout on home ice in mid-November. Brian Elliott earned two of the three wins.
The Hurricanes finished strong last season, ninth overall with 81 points. But they couldn’t build on their previous season’s playoff success. They were the only team to sweep an opponent in the qualifying round when they dispatched the Rangers, but then fell in five games to Boston in the official first playoff round.
The Flyers were also excellent against the Hurricanes this season, collecting seven of a total eight points off a 3-0-1 record.
The Islanders finished the season 11th overall, one point back of Carolina. They became the underdogs of the playoffs when they eliminated the higher-seeded Capitals and Flyers before falling to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Islanders have lost some depth over the summer due to salary-cap issues. The scalpel might still cut deeper once the club figures out how to bring RFA sniper Mathew Barzal under contract.
We all know what the Islanders did to the Flyers in the playoffs. Philadelphia was also 0-2-1 against Barry Trotz’s squad during the regular season. It’s tough matchup for Alain Vigneault’s group at any time of year.
Old Rivals – The Others
The Rangers finished just one point behind the Islanders in the regular season. But because they played two additional games, they slotted into 18th spot in the overall league standings by points percentage. Despite the stunning regular seasons from Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, they were swept out of the qualifying round by Carolina in three games.
The Flyers also swept the Rangers in their season series, winning 5-1, 5-2, and 5-3.
Finally, the Devils wrapped up last season in 26th place overall, tied with Buffalo with 68 points. It was a disappointing year for New Jersey, where new coach Lindy Ruff has now been installed and Tom Fitzgerald has started out strong as the club’s new GM.
New Jersey’s biggest signing was goaltender Cory Crawford, who will be competing for minutes against on-the-rise Mackenzie Blackwood. Fitzgerald also picked up winger Andreas Johnsson in a trade with Toronto.
Though they may be working on an internal budget, the Devils are also currently sitting with $17 million in available cap space, per CapFriendly, with some roster spots yet to fill. Those jobs could go to emerging talent, but Fitzgerald is also well-positioned to go bargain shopping on the free-agent market or pick up assets in trade by taking on another team’s burdensome contract. This roster is still a work in progress.
The Flyers went 2-1-0 against the Devils last season, with a regulation win and a shootout win early in the season, then a surprising 5-0 loss in early February, when Blackwood stopped all 46 shots he faced.
What About The Penguins?
Would the NHL really mount a season with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in separate divisions? Especially in a season that could very well see all games played within the division?
At this point, it seems possible. And it makes some sense, geographically. But the league and its broadcast partner, NBC, would be losing out on one of its favorite rivalries. Pittsburgh/Washington is right up there, too.
Flyers/Penguins games are always intense. They’re also unpredictable. Last season, Philly’s record was 1-1-1 — a 7-1 road loss in October, followed by a 3-0 shutout win on home ice just before the All-Star Break, then a 4-3 road loss that saw Sidney Crosby score the OT winner right after the break.
Whatever happens, Flyers/Penguins tends to evoke #AllTheFeelings. That emotion would be missed if this alignment holds up.
Losing out on Blue Jackets games would mean no opportunity to check in with one-time Flyers coach John Tortorella behind the bench — and some near-certain points. The Flyers swept their four games against Columbus last season, with the final win coming off an overtime goal from Kevin Hayes.