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Lightning Round: The NHL and NHLPA reportedly reached an agreement to begin the season

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Reports emerged that there was an agreement of when to start the season, but it’s not finalized just yet.

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Unlike the last time the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, it looks like they will get a chance to defend it this time. Maybe when they win their next one, they’ll actually have a full, 82-game season to celebrate their reign at the top of the league.

You have to hand it to the NHL. Most organizations would pick a time other than 8:00pm on the Friday before Christmas Week to release news their consumers having been anxiously waiting for, but the NHL is going NHL. Last night word emerged on social media that the NHL and the NHLPA had come to a “tentative” agreement to have a 56-game season starting on January 13th.

The news was met with a mixture of excitement and skepticism, especially in regards to the ability of the Canadian Division to actually play in Canada. Details are still emerging as to how the season is going to work and, as with all things these days, everything is subject to change. Neither the league’s Board of Governors or the NHLPA has officially signed off on the agreement, but that could rectified by the end of the weekend.

Still, it’s the closest thing to an official start of the 2021 season that we’ve heard from either side for months. While the final details are still being determined, the hockey insiders have shared what they’ve heard so far.

Training Camp / Season Start:

Training camps are scheduled to open January 3rd for teams that made it to last season’s playoff bubble. The seven teams that didn’t qualify, their camps open on December 31st. For the Lightning, that means players who aren’t already in Tampa (and in an interview last week Steven Stamkos insinuated that a large portion of the team stayed in town all fall) should start trickling back into town pretty soon. With Florida not having a quarantine restriction, it’s likely most will start rolling in after Christmas and using that week to clear testing and get situated.

Some teams (looking at you San Jose) will have to figure out alternative training locations due to restrictions on group sizes in their locations. Tampa doesn’t have to worry about that, but they do have to start adjusting to sharing their building with the Toronto Raptors. For that reason, expect most of their preseason work to be done in their practice facilitiy in Brandon.

With the regular season expected to start less than two weeks after the opening of camp there will likely be a limited amount of players in camp. It will most likely resemble the summer camp prior to the playoffs. Logistically it will be near impossible to have 50-60 players and additional coaching staff at camp, so the players that show up are likely to be the ones that have a legitimate shot at making the team. Teams, like the Lightning, that didn’t have much turnover could benefit from the condensed preseason.

There are unlikely to be any preseason games which means the first week of the season is going to feature some sloppy hockey (as well as being a gambling nightmare). Coaches will have to be very careful in managing players ice time in the early going as they ramp back up to full game speed. Expect a rash of pulled muscles in the first month of the season.

Roster Size

The number of players a team can carry during the season is another aspect that is still being finalized, but early reports are that teams will have a 23-player active roster along with a 4-6 person taxi squad. According to TSN’s Frank Seravelli, the players on the taxi squad will be paid their entire AHL salary and the rules concerning emergency recalls will be a little more flexible.

Expect the Lightning to keep at least one goaltender (probably Chris Gibson) on the taxi squad along with the extra forwards and defenders. With the AHL not expected to start until early February this will give a few players on the cusp of making the league (like Cal Foote, Ross Colton, and Alex Barre-Boulet) to hang around and garner some NHL experience. My guess at the initial list would be: Gibson, Foote, Barre-Boulet, Gemel Smith, and Luke Witkowski.

There will likely be a limit to the length of time a team can keep their players on the taxi squad without having them appear in a NHL game. That could lead to a bit of shuffling once the AHL fires back up as well as some interesting waivers decisions if the normal waiver rules apply.

Players will have the ability to opt out of the season for medical concerns. Details are still sketchy as to if they will be paid or if the contract will be pushed back a year. Would that help the Lightning out? Possibly, but it’s unlikely any of the players with a large enough contract to allow them to keep everyone would opt out. However, if another team has a key player opt out it could open up enough room in their salary cap to take a player off of the Lightning’s hands in a trade.

Divisions

As of right now the league is planning on being able to have a Canadian division. Talks with the Canadian authorities are continuing through the weekend. Should that happen then the rumored divisions would look like this:

Four teams in each division will make the playoffs. That’s pretty much what we had been seeing with the exception of Dallas joining the Lightning’s division instead of St. Louis.Without having looked too deeply into the competition I would assume that the Lightning will be battling it out with some combination of Dallas, Carolina, and Columbus. Florida and Nashville could be in the mix for the bottom playoff spots while Chicago might be frisky. It’s going to be a tough year for Detroit.

It sounds like the first two rounds of the playoffs will be played within division thus ensuring each has a representative in the conference finals. So at least one Canadian will be four wins from making it to the Stanley Cup Final.

What now?

According to Pierre LeBrun, the NHLPA Executive Board supports the agreement while the Board of Governors vote will take place Sunday or Monday. Expect full details of the Return to Play protocol to be released by then. As for the Canadian question, it would be safe to assume they’ve discussed and agreed upon an alternate solution should the preferred plan of having each team play in their home arena get scrapped.

With certainty coming in the next week, expect player movement to pick up. The remaining Unrestricted Free Agents like Mike Hoffman and Travis Harmonic to choose their teams while Restricted Free Agents like Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Pierre Luc-Dubois finalize their deals. Does that mean the long-awaited Tyler Johnson / Alex Killorn trades finally drop? Maybe. Technically, the Lightning don’t have to be compliant until January 13th, so there is still a relatively large window to make a deal, but it is shrinking.

This could still blow up or get delayed, but it is progress in the quest to squeeze in a shortened 2021 season.