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Fun with temporary division realignment as NHL/NHLPA talks to begin season continue

What division will the Penguins play in when the NHL comes back?

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As of now, the NHL and NHLPA are talking. The NHLPA is talking among themselves, getting all on the same page to figure out how, when and under what circumstances the league will come back.

The sticking point, as it often is in complex labor negotiations, boils down to a simple concept. Money.

How much will players get paid? The NHLPA thought this issue was resolved with the July CBA extension. From Elliotte Friedman:

As the NHL and NHLPA began grinding away at the 2020-21 NHL schedule, both sides knew at some point there would be a conversation about salaries. In last summer’s collective bargaining agreement, the players agreed to collect 72 per cent of their gross pay for the upcoming season — a 10 per cent deferment, and 20 per cent escrow. In their eyes, that was the deal, whether they played one game or 82.

But, with full arenas far from reality, team owners did not like that and raised the idea of pro-rated salaries.

The players want to play, and the NHL — led by commissioner Gary Bettman — wants to get going. Aside from COVID-19 itself, this was going to be the biggest hurdle.

The NY Post’s Larry Brooks had more on Tuesday night:

If the league remains fixed on a starting date on or around Jan. 1, as still appears to be the case, then movement between the league and the players association is required sometime soon. The league is prepared for a 14-day training camp to precede the regular season, which likely would consist of between 48 and 60 games.

If camps begin the second or third week of December (the seven clubs that did not participate in the summer tournament will be granted additional time on the ice), travel plans and protocols must be established within the next couple of weeks.

Negotiated realignment, regional play and a baseball-type schedule are anticipated for the season once the league and players settle on an economic framework for 2020-21

At this point, the NHL wants players to defer 12% more of their 2020-21 salaries to make the math work, which would drop an NHL player’s take home pay to about 62% of the actual money that their “guaranteed” contracts are written for. As of Wednesday night, that looks to be the major hurdle as to if the players will agree to this, or at least what other concessions they might gain if they do.

Beyond this hurdle to clear, it looks like the following is more or less coming into focus between tying together the common threads from reports like LeBrun, Friedman and Brooks have done.

  • The NHL season will start either on January 1st or sometime soon after
  • All seven Canadians team will compose one division, the other 24 American teams will split into three divisions
  • Perhaps up to 60 games, with teams expected to play strictly in their division
  • The NHL might look a bit like MLB scheduling with teams potentially playing two straight games in what cities they travel to, probably in empty arenas at least for the start of the season but with the hope that at least partially fans will be admitted as allowed and possible
  • Playoffs will start by mid-May and the league will conclude with the Stanley Cup by mid-July

A lot of those details still have to come to resolution and plans must be made, but that looks how the rough pieces are forming at this point, with surely some changes and alterations along the way.

The negotiating, specifically with money, isn’t fun, but like Friedman mentions, both sides have a mind to want the 2020-21 season to happen. Players won’t be happy with 62% of their salaries and having to give up more now, but 62% is better than 0% if a deal isn’t reached.

What is fun is the division aspect, another uniquely 2020 wrinkle. Due to border restrictions, we already know one sure division.

An interesting point will be to see where all the American teams are placed. Rob Rossi went over this a bit at The Athletic and let’s give it another look.

The league is spread, and the Canadian division proves that geography isn’t always going to work when you have Montreal and Ottawa in the same division as Vancouver so many miles away.

The Penguins are in an interesting spot with location. Pittsburgh has historical league rivalries with Atlantic-coast based teams like the three New York area teams, Philadelphia and Washington. However, fitting the puzzle together might make for some changes for this year.

Here’s one concept - bunch the six Atlantic seaboard teams (Boston, NYR, NYI, NJD, Philly and Washington) with the two Floridian teams. If this idea is used, Pittsburgh shifts to a more central division with St. Louis, Chicago and Nashville in it, as well as the relatively close teams of Columbus, Buffalo and Detroit. Carolina is in here too, because they don’t fit anywhere else.

Another idea: keep Pittsburgh with their usual Eastern rivals, add in nearby Buffalo and that makes a very tidy and convenient Northeast division that would limit a lot of travel for those eight teams.

What if the league gets really crazy with it and makes a southern division in America that mirrors the Canadian division by stretching out big time from east to west?

This would allow for a ton of possibilities. In theory if this was the call, they could keep the Metropolitan Division unchanged from the past (the 3 NYC area teams + PHI + WSH + PIT + CBJ + CAR) and create a true hodgepodge final division of what was left with a few Atlantic division teams (BOS, BUF, DET) joining what was left of the former Central Division (COL, NSH, STL, CHI, MIN).

Or they could have it make more geographic sense and look like this:

I wouldn’t really expect any reason why Pittsburgh and Colorado would be in the same division, but then again, that’s also a scenario that was just dreamed up. It would also be pretty easy if they wanted to swap the Pens into the Eastern division and bump Carolina or Buffalo to the Central, the combinations are pretty wide open.

Needless to say, there could be a lot of possibilities for the Pens given where they are located and could fit in as a swing team for a lot of different divisions.

Will their division include teams like Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis? Or end up more traditional with most of the teams they already know well and are used to competing against? I’d probably hazard a guess the latter feels more natural, but after all of this, who knows?

That’s a bit of the fun at this point is that a whole lot could be up in the air, especially for the Pens. If you’re looking at a California team or a New York team, you can pretty accurately and easily list off about four or five teams that almost certainly will be in the new division. A team like the Pens, you can probably throw a dart where a team like Chicago or Nashville makes about as much sense as being with the Pens this year as do teams like the Rangers or Islanders. Just depends how they divvy it up.

That’s one of many interesting angles to look at if the league does break into four sections and play exclusively in it. If the NHL ends up with a 56 game season, that would mean playing each team a hefty eight times a piece. No matter how it breaks out, time is running short as we are now marching towards December with no set plans known.

But once the financial obstacles are ironed out and agreed on, the big question will quickly shift to just how the NHL will setup their 2020-21 season. In a year with so many unprecedented events and occurrences, this year will be another very unusual and unique design. Hopefully we get more soon, but for now it’s fun to think about what steps will happen when hockey gets back underway.