NHL burning questions: When will season start and who will Wings play?

Detroit News

Ted Kulfan
 
| The Detroit News

Detroit — When is the NHL finally going to play?

Here it is, Thanksgiving weekend, and normally the league would be approaching the quarter mark of the regular season and playoff projections already would taking place.

Because of the pandemic, none of that is happening.

The arenas are empty, players in the area continue to skate and work out on their own, and details for next season still are being ironed out.

Nobody knows for sure when the season will begin. The NHL and the NHL Players Association successfully negotiated a return to play last summer, completing the pandemic-shortened season, but are finding many more details to work out for the upcoming regular season.

But, they will.

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There are tough hurdles. Safety protocols, economics, scheduling and divisional alignments still have to be figured out, but the two sides have too much to lose not to get it done. 

When the Red Wings and the rest of the 30 teams get to training camp, it will be the dawn of what should be a shorter but fascinating season.

Here are some of the biggest questions about the NHL season:

Will an NHL season actually happen?

There are so many obstacles to overcome, but the NHL will return soon.

There are financial issues to work out, testing obviously will be a huge factor, and revenue will be impacted with likely few, if any, fans in the arenas.

But the NHL can’t stay dormant. Too much money would be lost, and both sides truly do want to play.

The most basic premise: Just get through this upcoming season, and get things back to normal in September 2021.

What will it look like?

It’ll definitely be a shortened season, somewhere between 48 and 60 games, with the playoffs completed before the July Summer Olympics.

For this one season, the divisions will be realigned with a greater emphasis on geography, including an all-Canadian division because of the borders being closed.

Similar to Major League Baseball, the NHL is likely to go to a heavy, maybe exclusive, intra-division schedule, which could ignite some rivalries. And in Canada, that realignment should make fans go bonkers with excitement.

Who will be in the Wings’ division?

There’s been so many guesses, so much speculation, but here’s another one.

How about the Wings in some sort of “Central Division” with Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus, Chicago, Nashville, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.

Travel would be minimized, and some rivalries would be kept alive or reignited (Detroit-Chicago!).

But make no mistake: It’s going to be impossible to please every team and fan base, and difficult to evenly distribute these teams geographically.

More: Red Wings pick Donovan Sebrango hopes to separate himself with grit, skating ability

Who would win the Canadian Division?

That would be a talented, exciting division.

Six of those seven teams made the playoffs and nobody has terribly regressed — and Ottawa, the lone non-playoff team, has improved on paper.

Talk about playing a tough game every night.

But give Toronto the slimmest of edges to win this division right now.

Can the Stanley Cup-champion Lightning repeat?

The Lightning are over the salary cap and need to likely get rid of two important regulars out of their lineup to get anywhere close to below the cap.

Tyler Johnson already has been waived (but not claimed), and other forwards such as Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde have been rumored as possibilities as leaving.

But you know what? There is still so much depth and stars in their prime that in a shortened season this Lightning roster could easily swipe another Cup.

Which team will be most improved?

Montreal has really improved.

They’ve added a quality backup goaltender (Jake Allen), a big, sturdy defenseman (Joel Edmundson), and scoring forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli.

There is more offense in this lineup, and some bite on defense.

Along with the maturation of the young players Montreal has, this is now a well balanced team.

More: Red Wings draft pick Alex Cotton prepared to show big season was no fluke

Which team could take a fall?

The Washington Capitals signed goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to solidify their goaltending and signed defenseman Justin Schultz, weakening divisional thorn Pittsburgh in the balance.

But the way the Capitals fell flat in the return to play last season, along with advancing age creeping onto this roster, and suddenly this looks like an uneasy situation.

The Capitals could become more of a wild-card team than a division winner.

What will Taylor Hall’s impact be on the Sabres?

Hall, an unrestricted free agent whose market became non-existent, signed a one-year, $8-million deal.

There were reasons. Hall is familiar with, and enjoyed playing for, Sabres coach Ralph Krueger when both were in Edmonton. Getting to play with a star center like Jack Eichel could be beneficial for both, too.

There’s other talent here, and Hall should be motivated. The Sabres could be dangerous if they’re in an advantageous divisional realignment.

Which player could take off next season?

There are so many incredible young players in the NHL who already are dominating.

But keep an eye on New Jersey forward Jack Hughes.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2019, Hughes looked physically mismatched at times last season.

That will not be as much an issue in 2021. Expect Hughes to make a huge advancement, given all this time off, being physically and mentally stronger.

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Who could be declining?

Someone to watch is Toronto forward John Tavares.

It was a happy homecoming when Tavares signed with his hometown team as a free agent in 2018. But now at age 30, Tavares dropped from 47 to 26 goals, and 88 to 60 points (all, granted, in 19 fewer games).

Some scouts felt Tavares began losing a step last season, and if that trend continues, with five years left on the seven-year, $77-million contract Tavares signed, he could be a huge albatross on a strapped Leafs salary cap.

What impact will rookie Alexis Lafreniere make?

Lafreniere will have every chance to succeed in an almost perfect situation for a young player.

There’s just enough talent on the New York Rangers roster to alleviate much of the pressure on Lafreniere, and he’ll have talented linemates.

Even in a market like New York, the pressure won’t be heavy on Lafreniere’s shoulders. This is a good roster, so Lafreniere won’t be expected to dominate from the start. He should do fine, and be a Rookie of the Year finalist.

Can the Penguins make one more Stanley Cup run?

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have won three Stanley Cups together but were ineffective as Pittsburgh was eliminated in the Qualifying Round by Montreal in the return to play.

Suddenly, the Penguins’ future looked hazy.

GM Jimmy Rutherford made a flurry of moves in an effort to keep the contending window open. Goaltender Matt Murray, who won two Cups in Pittsburgh, was traded to Ottawa in a cost-cutting move, making goaltending a question mark in Pittsburgh.

But everything depends on Crosby, Malkin and Letang. In a shortened season, if they play to a superstar level, the Penguins could be a factor.

First coach to be fired will be…

Arizona has had a lousy offseason on many levels, and the roster hasn’t improved.

Given a new general manager, maybe another rebuilding project soon enough, coach Rick Tocchet may have a short leash (and get a chance to excel for his next team).

Will it be good to be the Seattle Kraken next summer?

First off, the Seattle market will be an exciting location for any player, a destination spot because of its vibe, location and wide open salary cap space.

But also, given the financial trouble many teams will continue to be in because of the pandemic and resulting flat cap, the Kraken should be in an enviable position to add talent that other teams will need to unload.

Seattle should be able to put together a competitive roster fairly quickly, similar to what Vegas did several years ago.

And the Stanley Cup winner will be?

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Tampa Bay repeat. But Vegas, a team like Tampa that has suffered some tough playoff disappointments, might finally have the roster and experience to make a successful Stanley Cup run — whenever  this next season finally concludes.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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