2021 NHL season to feature new divisions, taxi squad, opt-out clause

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New divisions, roster rules in effect for Sharks, NHL in 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The 2021 NHL season will be unlike any other in the league’s history.

Due to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league and the NHL Players Association have agreed to a 56-game regular season scheduled to begin on Jan. 13. There are a host of other rule changes that will affect all 31 franchises including the Sharks, who will relocate their upcoming training camp to Scottsdale, Arizona.

Here’s a look at the biggest changes for the NHL heading into this season.

Divisional realignment

The NHL smartly grouped all seven Canadian into the North division to eliminate any international border travel border issues. Meanwhile, the Sharks have been placed into the West, which now features last year’s two top teams from the Central division: the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche.

Teams will play all 56 regular-season games against divisional foes, often facing the same team multiple times in a row, in order to cut down on travel. The top four teams from each division will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which will start with two intradivisional rounds. Here’s a divisional breakdown of the league:

West: Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Blues and Vegas Golden Knights

Central: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning

East: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals

North: Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets

Taxi Squad

In an effort to minimize any roster shortages due to the coronavirus and testing, each team will also be entitled to a 4-6 man taxi squad, per CapFriendly.com.

Players on the taxi squad will be eligible to travel, practice and take part in NHL team activities, but are ineligible to practice with any minor league squads. All players, except for goalies, must be recalled by 2 p.m. PT to be eligible to play that day. A taxi squad goalie must be made available for all teams that don’t have three goalies on their NHL roster.

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These taxi-squad players will be paid AHL-level salaries and won’t count toward the 23-man, $81.5 million salary cap. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks use their taxi squad even though the San Jose Barracuda are expected to restart in early 2021, according to general manager Doug Wilson.

Opt-out clause

The new agreement also allows for players to opt out of the season due to concerns over coronavirus, meaning clubs can honor this season’s contract in 2021-22. According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, the Sharks and other non-playoff teams have until Dec. 24 for their opt-out deadline, while 2019-20 playoff teams have until Dec. 27.

Wilson said that he has been in contact with all of his players this offseason and doesn’t expect any player from the Sharks to opt out. He also said that some Sharks players playing abroad in Europe had contracted the virus, without naming names, but that no one has arrived in San Jose while carrying the virus.

Important dates

The entire regular season will be compacted into 116 days, making it something of a sprint for the Stanley Cup this year. Here’s a list of key dates to keep track of, according to Frank Seravalli of TSN.

Training camps for non-playoff teams: Dec. 31

Training camps for playoff teams: Jan. 3

Opening night: Jan. 13

Trade deadline: April 12

End of regular season: May 8

Start of playoffs: May 11

Expansion draft: July 21

NHL draft: July 23-24

Free-agency begins: July 28

October: Beginning of 2021-22 regular season