What to know ahead of this unusual NHL season

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To borrow a phrase we hear too often these days, an NHL season like no other opens Wednesday night. Here are some big-picture things to know about the pandemic-shortened 2021 campaign:

It’s going to be a lot trickier this time

Last year, the NHL made it through an entire two-month playoff tournament without a single player testing positive for the coronavirus. But all those games were played in hermetically sealed environments in Toronto and Edmonton, with everyone involved in the games quarantined from the public.

This time there’s no bubble. Teams are playing out of their own arenas, so players are living at home and, for road games, travelling by plane and staying in hotels. Some buildings could even have fans in them.

The Arizona Coyotes plan to allow up to 3,450 people at their January home games. And, this was a long shot, but Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk tweeted Tuesday that he submitted a proposal for 6,000 fans to attend his team’s games (then quickly deleted the tweet and issued a backpedalling statement).

Non-bubbled leagues have all run into problems here in North America. The NBA pulled off a spotless 2020 playoffs at Disney World, but has already had to postpone several games this season now that the bubble is gone.

Major League Baseball and the NFL were both hit by team-wide outbreaks that threatened to put their seasons on hold or turn it into a farce.

The Dodgers’ Justin Turner got yanked in the middle of a World Series game because of a positive test.

The Broncos’ starting quarterback one week was a practice-squad wide receiver. The Browns played a playoff game without their head coach. But both leagues marched on.

The NHL says it’s prepared to be flexible, and it’s already had to bend the schedule.

The Dallas Stars’ first three games were postponed after an outbreak on the team last week. Three other teams have either held players out of practice or cancelled activities due to test results.

WATCH | League must adapt to uncertainty caused by virus:

The puck drops on the NHL’s new season and the all-Canadian division this week and though there are concerns about playing and travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, the league says it’s prepared to be flexible to the circumstances. 2:00

Get ready to feel déjà vu

Due to the late start and a desire to make sure the 2021-22 season starts on time, this season is only 56 games for each team — down from the usual 82. And, to reduce travel, the NHL realigned its four divisions and cut out all interdivisional games.

So, in the three eight-team divisions, everyone will play each other eight times. In the seven-team, all-Canadian North Division, they’ll play each other nine or 10 times. Teams will often play each other two or even three times in a row.

The Stanley Cup playoffs (scheduled to start May 11) will be more of the same.

It’s still a 16-team, four-round tournament with best-of-seven-series, but this year the top four teams in each division will qualify and they’ll square off against each other for the first two rounds. So we won’t see an interdivisional matchup until the semifinals, which will start in June.

The all-Canadian division should be a hit

This season was in desperate need of a hook to distract us from the dreariness of empty arenas and the inevitable depleted rosters and postponed games.

So the Canadian government may have actually done the NHL a favour by refusing to allow teams to fly in and out of the country for games — leading to the creation of the all-Canadian North Division.

The downside is that we could see the same two teams play each other up to 17 times this year if they meet in the playoffs. The upside is that every one of these games will feature two of the NHL’s most passionate fan bases.

On the ice, familiarity tends to breed contempt.

So there’s more chance for deep-rooted rivalries like Edmonton vs. Calgary and Toronto vs. Montreal to boil over and produce heated games. For a league that’s been looking for ways to juice up its too-long regular season, this might be the ticket.

Read about the big storylines to follow on each of the seven Canadian teams in this piece by Vicki Hall and get Rob Pizzo’s picks below.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo ranks the all-Canadian division:

For the first time, all 7 Canadian teams will be in one division. Rob Pizzo predicts which four will make the playoffs. 5:47

There are faces in new places

Everyone’s got bigger fish to fry right now, so don’t feel bad if you forgot Joe Thornton is a Leaf, Taylor Hall is a Sabre, Alex Pietrangelo is a Golden Knight, Torey Krug is a Blue and Max Domi is a Blue Jacket.

In addition to those notable skaters changing addresses, a bunch of goalies switched teams.

Jacob Markstrom went from Vancouver to Calgary, Braden Holtby from Washington to Vancouver, Cam Talbot from Calgary to Minnesota, Devan Dubnyk from Minnesota to San Jose and Matt Murray from Pittsburgh to Ottawa.

And that’s not even all of them.

WATCH | Evaluating NHL’s goaltending carousel:

Rob Pizzo catches you up on the significant changes between the pipes this season. 2:43

A few big names won’t be playing at all

Henrik Lundqvist, who ended his 15-year tenure with the Rangers to chase a Cup in Washington, is out for the season after undergoing heart surgery.

St. Louis defenceman Jay Bouwmeester retired this week after experiencing a scary heart problem of his own last season.

Longtime Chicago goalie Corey Crawford retired last weekend, backing out of his two-year deal with New Jersey before ever suiting up for them.

And 2020 playoff scoring leader Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning is expected to miss the regular season (but could return for the playoffs) after hip surgery.

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