Entering this year, the 2020-21 NHL season was rendered uncertain by the nightmarish logistics of playing during a pandemic. But now, after five months of condensed schedules and divisional rivalries, here we are. The regular season is finally over (with the exception, of course, of the North Division). If you’re a fan of one of the NHL’s playoff-bound teams, the race for the Stanley Cup is on. But if your group missed out on the postseason, you’re probably feeling far less elated. It’ll likely be difficult for you to find much to get excited about in the coming months. But in an effort to generate at least a bit of optimism, here’s a few hockey world happenings to look forward to between now and next season.
Things to Look Forward to When the 2020-21 NHL Season is Over
Stanley Cup Playoffs
This may sound counterintuitive, but following the Stanley Cup Playoffs can still be extremely entertaining. (Yes, even if your favourite team isn’t in the competition.) After all, the postseason is specifically designed to produce exciting hockey. Having sixteen of the best teams in the league go head-to-head significantly ups the stakes and the overall quality of the game. It’s worth watching just to enjoy the competitive, high-level play that only the playoffs can produce.
During the postseason, it’s not unusual for fans to have a “second team”. Think of it as a “Plan B” for when your main team doesn’t make the cut. While supporting a different group might feel odd at first, it gets you invested and subsequently increases the excitement factor. Rooting against enemies can be similarly entertaining. Rivalries have been fierce thanks to interdivisional play, and that will continue through the early rounds of the playoffs. Even if you don’t choose any particular team to throw your weight behind, it’s worth watching a game or two just to see the league’s brightest talents play. Regular-season Connor McDavid is scary – just imagine what playoff Connor McDavid might look like.
Draft Lottery Changes
Before we get to the NHL draft itself, we have to contend with the draft lottery. Twice in a row, the lottery has smiled upon the New York Rangers. They claimed Kaapo Kakko with the second pick in 2019 and Alexis Lafreniere in 2020 with the first. However, new changes have been made to hopefully allow the teams who are struggling the most to retain a high pick.
This year, there will be two lottery draws instead of the traditional three so that the worst team in the league can drop no lower than the third pick. Additionally, lottery winners will be unable to move up more than 10 spots. And starting in 2022, winning twice in a five-year period will be disallowed, thereby avoiding another Rangers situation. If your team is among the league’s worst (namely the Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, and New Jersey Devils), there’s a much better chance of this year’s draft lottery going your way. That, at the very least, is something to celebrate.
2021 NHL Draft
The 2021 NHL Draft itself will be different than usual, mainly due to the pandemic. COVID precautions caused the QMJHL and WHL to hold shortened seasons and the OHL to shut down entirely. Even in the NCAA, the men’s ice hockey tournament suffered a rash of outbreaks. Notably, the Michigan Wolverines – a team that sported three top prospects in Matthew Beniers, Owen Power, and Kent Johnson – were forced to withdraw due to positive COVID tests. For NHL scouts, the junior hockey leagues’ abbreviated seasons provide only small sample sizes to judge prospects by. And that presents a challenge for the teams as they try to draft players who’ve been severely limited during the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the show must go on. Despite the setbacks this year’s draft class has faced, it will still feature talented players with the potential to boost any roster. Consequently, there are plenty of articles all across the Internet – including many here at Last Word on Hockey – that detail the specifics of the top prospects. By reading up on the draft, and in particular familiarizing yourself with the players who best fit your group’s needs, you can easily stay invested and engaged in your team over the offseason.
NHL debuts are universally exciting. Prospects are always looking to prove that they can play at the highest level, so they come out with energy and a unique sort of fire. That typically gives a boost to the rest of the team, too, as they increase their effort to match that of the rookie. If your group was floundering toward the end of the season, chances are that you’ve seen some of your top prospects in action already. Ideally, they lived up to expectations in the games they played. If not, there will be future opportunities for them to show they belong on the roster. Even if your team didn’t find success this season, you can take comfort in the fact that there will be an influx of young – and hopefully talented – prospects at some point.
The great thing about the NHL’s farm system is that there will always be more prospects. As such, there will always be options for your team. While the draft bulks up the prospect pool, the farm system is what really prepares them for NHL-level competition. And that makes it a great thing to immerse yourself in. Find a favourite player (or players) to invest in. Track their progress through the minor leagues. It’ll be all the more exciting for you when they make it to the NHL, and in the meantime, you’ll have something to look forward to if times continue to be rough for your team.
Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft
The first major event at the completion of the 2020-21 NHL season is the expansion draft. The Seattle Kraken’s induction into the NHL comes four years after the Vegas Golden Knights. To put that in perspective, 17 years passed between the Golden Knights expansion draft and the previous one (that of the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets). Consequently, the fact that the NHL will be getting a new team in less than a quarter of that time is monumental.
And it’s not just potential Seattle fans that should be looking forward to the advent of the Kraken. The expansion draft will affect every existing team aside from the Golden Knights, who are exempt. This leaves the remaining 30 organizations to make the difficult decision of which players to protect. Each team can shield seven forwards and three defencemen – or, alternatively, eight skaters – and one goalie from the draft. Seattle will then take a player from the remaining roster.
There are plenty of other stipulations as well – first- and second-year players are automatically protected, injured players can’t be used to save a spot, et cetera. (If you’re interested, the NHL’s full guide is here.) But you really don’t need to know every single rule of the draft, because it’s more the general implications that matter. Long story short, the expansion draft will be looming over the head of every NHL GM this offseason. It will add an extra twist into the usual offseason trades and contract negotiations – and give fans plenty to speculate about.
Lots to Look Forward to in the Coming Months
So even if the 2020-21 NHL season wasn’t the year for your team, try to look on the bright side. There’s playoff hockey, the draft, a different kind of draft, and plenty of young prospects ahead. And, of course, although it may feel incredibly far away right now, the 2021-22 season will come around eventually. In the meantime, the hockey world has plenty of exciting things to tide you over – you just need to know where to look.