All-Canadian division solves NHL's border conundrum

2020-12-16 22:44:00

Gary Bettman. [Photo/Agencies] The National Hockey League is working on a plan to temporarily realign for the upcoming season, with a separate division for the seven teams based in Canada. During an online interview with The Maccabi USA Sports Show on the weekend, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the realignment would likely be necessary because of travel restrictions between the United States and Canada aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. "There are a lot of things we have to do to return to play," Bettman said. "For us to return to play, we're not going to play 82 games, obviously, and we have travel issues because of the restrictions at the border. You can't go back and forth, so we're actually going to have to realign." The league is aiming to launch the 2021 season in January, but any realignment plan would have to be approved by the NHL board of governors. An all-Canadian division would include the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets. The 24 US-based teams will likely be separated into three divisions, with eight teams in each. The league is conducting discussions with the NHL Players' Association about the format for the season, including the start date and length of training camp, and protocols for returning to play during the pandemic. Depending on the availability of vaccines to the general public, the NHL hopes to play a full regular season with fans in the arenas in 2021-22, when the expansion Seattle Kraken begin play as the league's 32nd team. In another development, Jack Hughes and Alexis Lafreniere will not play in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament, which opens on Dec 25 in Edmonton. The teenage forwards, who were tentatively penciled in for Team USA and Team Canada respectively, were the No 1 picks in the past two NHL drafts: Hughes in 2019 by the New Jersey Devils, Lafreniere in August by the New York Rangers. "We need Jack to concentrate on the Devils," New Jersey general manager Tom Fitzgerald told NHL.com. "The silver lining for Jack during this pandemic was a lengthy opportunity to gain strength and weight to compete in the NHL when we start." The 19-year-old notched seven goals and 14 assists while averaging 15:52 of ice time in 61 games as a rookie last season. "Jack put in a ton of work and commitment to his craft," Fitzgerald said. "Our top priority is to have him ready, physically and mentally, and healthy for the start of the 2020-21 season, whenever that day is." The NHL has targeted Jan 1 for the start of the new season. Lafreniere helped Canada win the 2020 WJC, firing four goals and six assists in five games en route to being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. The 19-year-old signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Rangers in October and is expected to immediately bolster New York's offense. "After ongoing discussions with the New York Rangers, Hockey Canada has been informed that Alexis Lafreniere will not be released to represent Canada at the upcoming World Junior Championship," Hockey Canada said in a statement. "Although we are disappointed Alexis will not be able to join our team, we understand and respect the decision made by the Rangers." The Rangers also opted to not release forward Kaapo Kakko to play for Finland at the WJC. The 19-year-old forward helped his country win the 2019 tournament, scoring the winning goal against the United States in the gold-medal game.