Covid-19 forces divisional shakeup, shrinks NHL season

Washington (AFP) –


A National Hockey League season disrupted by Covid-19 even before the first puck drops will start Wednesday with defending champion Tampa Bay among the Stanley Cup contenders.

The campaign has been shortened from 82 games per club to 56 and scheduled to run until May 8 in home arenas with playoffs to follow into July, bringing hope of returning to a normal October start for the 2021-22 season.

Teams have been realigned due to US-Canada border travel restrictions with all seven Canadian clubs in their own division and new eight-team breakdowns in three US-only divisions.

The Dallas Stars have already had their first four games postponed, two at Florida and two at Tampa Bay in a rematch of last year's Stanley Cup Final, after six players and two staff members tested positive last week for Covid-19.

And without spectators in the stands for most clubs over most of the season due to the deadly virus, the league stands to lose more than $1 billion, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday.

"We're coming back to play this season because we think it's important for the game," Bettman said. "It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play."

Bettman said revenue from spectators accounts for half of all NHL income.

"Everybody is going to lose a lot of money to do this," Bettman said.

Only Dallas, Florida and Arizona plan to have a limited number of spectators for games among the NHL's 31 teams.

There has been an off-season break similar to normal since the Tampa Bay Lightning captured the Stanley Cup on September 28, beating Dallas four games to two in the best-of-seven NHL Final inside a Covid-19 bubble at Edmonton.

It ended four days shy of a year from the 2019-20 season opener, concluding a campaign halted March 12 by the pandemic with an expanded playoffs in August and September in quarantine bubbles at Toronto and Edmonton that saw no Covid-19 positive tests.

Regular season and pre-season NHL contests in Europe, outdoor contests in Minnesota and North Carolina and the NHL All-Star Game in Florida were all wiped out due to Covid-19 issues.

But Vegas will face Colorado and Boston will meet Philadelphia outdoors at Lake Tahoe in February.

The Lightning have the most wins, playoff wins and goals scored in the NHL over the past six seasons and figure to challenge for the Cup again with Steven Stamkos healthy after missing most of Tampa Bay's playoff run, Andrei Vasilevskiy solid at goaltender and Victor Hedman anchoring a strong defensive unit.

The divisional shakeup makes Dallas a division rival instead of a foe from the opposite conference, with Carolina and Nashville also likely to challenge among Central rivals.

- Ovechkin sparks Caps -

Washington's Alex Ovechkin, whose 48 goals shared the NHL lead last season with Boston's David Pastrnak, has topped the league in goals for seven of the past eight seasons and hopes the Capitals can repeat the Stanley Cup title run of 2018 under new coach Peter Laviolette.

The Capitals also boast the NHL's oldest and tallest player (6-foot-9, 2.06m) in 43-year-old defenseman Zdeno Chara and the NHL's top assist producing backliner in John Carlson, who set-up 60 goals last season while scoring 15.

Boston, which led the NHL with 44 wins last season, should be a factor as well with Pastrnak and a fast, physical lineup.

Colorado, powered by 35-goal scorer Nathan MacKinnon, will be a favorite in the West along with the Vegas Golden Knights, who lost to Washington in the 2018 final in their inaugural season and reached the Western Conference final last year before falling to Dallas.

Hockey-mad Canada will enjoy a season unlike any other with its seven teams together playing only each other.

The Edmonton Oilers should be a force behind stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl while the Toronto Maple Leafs, sparked by 47-goal scorer Auston Matthews, figure to contend for Canadian bragging rights as well.