New divisions, guidelines await Hurricanes for 2020-21

Carolina will play in the new-look Central Division

Jordan Staal and the Hurricanes would face Mika Zibanejad and the New York Rangers in a planned play-in series. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

The Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL will start the 2020-21 (2021?) season on Jan. 13. There are still plenty of unknowns on how the planned 56-game season in which teams will play eight times against the seven other teams in their newly formed divisions (the exception is the all-Canadian North Division, which has seven teams that will play eight games against one another) will unfold. But Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, coach Rod Brind’Amour and captain Jordan Staal did provide some answers in a Zoom call with the media Monday.

New divisions?

Yep, the NHL had to reconfigure its divisions to accommodate for the fact that travel in and out of Canada is extremely restricted. The end result? The aforementioned North Division will consist of the NHL’s seven Canadian teams.

That means shuffling around all the teams, and the Hurricanes landed in the new-look Central. They are joined by both Stanley Cup Final teams from 2020, Tampa Bay and Dallas, fellow Metropolitan Division rival Columbus, the rebuilding Red Wings, former Southeast Division rival Florida, and Western Conference mainstays Chicago and Nashville.

“We haven’t played those teams that much so I think it might be a little breath of fresh air for some of our guys to kind of create a little more rivalry with some other teams,” Brind’Amour said. “But at the end of the day, the guys just want to play, so it doesn’t matter.”

Forget Uber and Lyft — we’re talking taxis

Teams will be allowed a taxi squad of 4-6 players who will be paid AHL salaries. That means any player picked by a team to be designated to a taxi squad would be subject to waivers the same as if they were being assigned to the minors.

Another wrinkle: There will not be emergency goalies available in NHL arenas this season — sorry, David Ayres — so teams will be required to have a third goalie with them on road trips. That could be a third goalie on the NHL roster or a taxi squad goalie. Each team will be required to have a goalie on their taxi squad and they will hit the road with the team for away games. Other taxi squad members will not be required to travel with the NHL club.

So I’m stuck in the AHL … forever?

NHL teams will be able to shuffle players from their AHL teams to the taxi squad, but the protocols will be strict.

“There’s going to be a minimum of seven days quarantine with at least four negative tests before they can join,” Waddell said of moving players onto the taxi squad from the minors.

So teams will have to choose wisely about who is on their taxi squad. Would a young player be better served playing full-time in the AHL rather than simply practicing in Raleigh? It seems like an ideal job for journeyman players who aren’t going to benefit from time in the minors. Offseason signings like defenseman Joakim Ryan or forwards Drew Shore and Jeremy Bracco could be a good fit for the taxi squad over players like the developing Joey Keane or Ryan Suzuki.

Where things will get interesting is with players like Jake Bean who are ready for an NHL job but maybe don’t have a spot just yet. Carolina will need to decide what’s best for each individual player.

If fans can’t be indoors, how about outdoors?

The Hurricanes were supposed to hold an outdoor Stadium Series game at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 20, 2021. So it’s worth asking: When is a better time to hold an outdoor game than when you’re not allowed to have any fans indoors?

As it turns out, probably in 2022. Waddell said he remains in touch with the league regarding Carolina’s planned outdoor game, but there currently isn’t any plan to hold it this season. The Hurricanes want the event to be an absolute show-stopper, and current North Carolina pandemic rules would limit seating at the nearly 60,000-seat stadium. The best bet is to wait and put on the even as planned with a packed stadium.

Buckets for sale

Revenue streams for teams are pretty dried up without the money from ticket sales, parking and concessions. So while the NHL isn’t ready to go full NASCAR with their uniforms, the league is exploring putting small advertised decals on players helmets’ — more like the NBA’s tiny jersey ads rather than the company logos splashed all over European hockey teams’ uniforms and rinks.

“We’re exploring right now putting patches on helmets, both home and away,” Waddell said. “I think would be a pretty big asset. … That’s something that has been talked about for years, but we got to a point to make that happen.”

“100% ready to roll”

The Hurricanes had their share of injuries last season, from defenseman Dougie Hamilton being hurt before the pandemic derailed things and Brett Pesce missing the balance of the season after suffering a shoulder injury in February during the Ayres game in Toronto to Andrei Svechnikov going down in the playoff series with Boston.

But Waddell said his team is healthy ahead of its brief training camp.

“We’re in good shape … and I think we’re 100% ready to roll,” he said.

Who isn’t?