What's new for NHL? Almost everything


Because we are still very much in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL won’t be operating like it normally does. Of course, there won’t be fans at many games because of local ordinances, at least early in the season, but there are a few other things that are different about the upcoming season as well.


A shortened season was almost a given once the NHL announced its plans to return to play last summer. After all, the playoffs stretched into the fall, which is when a new season typically starts. What we’re left with is a 56-game regular season. In total, there are 868 games scheduled, down from the usual 1,271 in an 82-game campaign.

For forecasters, this is an important change because when we decrease the sample size of a skill-based game, we increase the likelihood that the results are a product of luck. In the context of hockey, think about it like this: It’s easier for a bad team to win a period against a good team than it is to win the entire game. It’s also easier for a bad team to win a best-of-five series than a best-of-seven. I hope you’re getting the picture.

Reducing the season by more than 30% will lead to some strange happenings because good and bad luck won’t even out the way it should over a longer season. A good team probably will miss the playoffs because of an unlucky stretch or an injury that it likely would have been able to overcome in a full season. And a bad team might end up in the playoffs because of shooting and saving luck they wouldn’t have sustained over 82 games.


Travel was always going to be an issue, and with that came the temporary realignment of the four divisions and the restructuring of the playoff format. The four divisions are put together to ensure that teams do not have to travel out of their region, though some teams have no other choice.

North (Canada): Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg

West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas

Central: Tampa Bay, Carolina, Dallas, Columbus, Nashville, Florida, Detroit, Chicago

East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

Because teams won’t play outside of their division, you’re going to see the same matchups between eight and 10 times during the regular season. Will the data gained from these regular-season matchups help us predict future matchups? It should give us an idea of whether or not head-to-head results actually matter when it comes to predicting the winner of a playoff series.

I have never put much stock into whether one team got the better of another during the regular season because teams typically meet only three or four times. However, just as reducing the sample size of a season or a playoff series increases the chances that the results are a product of luck, increasing the number of games in a season series means we’ll have to put more stock into the results.

On the topic of sample size, I expect some pseudo hockey betting experts to recommend that you “narrow your focus” and handicap only a single division. It might sound smart, but in a game in which the results are just as much a product of luck as they are a skill as hockey, limiting yourself to 224 betting opportunities, even fewer if you focus on the North Division, is a bad idea. There are only 868 regular-season games this season, down from 1,271. Look for an edge wherever you can.

It’s also going to be important for bettors to account for the average team strength in each division come the end of the season or when trying to estimate the chances of a team winning the Stanley Cup. If they don’t, playoff teams from weaker divisions could be overrated and teams from a stronger division could be underrated, leading to an inaccurate game projection.

As far as the playoffs go, it will be No. 1 versus No. 4 and No. 2 versus No. 3 in each division, with the winners of those matchups battling it out to see who represents their division in the semifinals. Once in the semifinals, there are no borders as teams will be reseeded and it will once again be No. 1 versus No. 4 and No. 2 versus No. 3. That means it won’t necessarily be an Eastern Conference team and a Westeren Conference team competing for the Stanley Cup.


Every team will carry what is being called a taxi squad of four to six players throughout the regular season. These players will travel and participate in practices and other team activities in an effort to keep them close by and readily available for a quick call-up.

Not only will this help coaches navigate a season in which their players will almost certainly be exposed to COVID-19 and have to miss time, it also will help general managers who find themselves up against the salary cap. However, it should be noted that loans to the taxi squad are subject to waiver requirements and players not deemed waiver-exempt could be picked up by other teams. 

Teams with a plethora of players who meet the requirements, like those on entry-level contracts,  and won’t be exposed to waivers will be especially well-positioned to take advantage of the taxi squad. There are several other ways that general managers can work the system, such as filing paper transactions on days when the team doesn’t play, but that doesn’t really matter to us as much.

The composition of each group is unknown right now, but we’ll have a pretty good idea of things as training camp draws to a close. For sports bettors, establishing a rating for the players who will be travelling with the team throughout the season is going to be just as important as estimating the value of those on the main roster.

Skater transactions will be able to be made right up until 5 p.m. each day and a goaltender can be recalled even later, so bettors will need to make decisions quickly or miss out. It’s a lot easier to do that if you already know what each player on the taxi squad brings to the table.


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