The NHL has extended its regular season to May 16 to allow teams in the all-Canada North Division to make up games that were postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Vancouver Canucks. The league has left open the possibility, however, that teams in the three other divisions that were created for this pandemic-postponed, 56-game season might start their postseason competition on May 11.
The first two playoff rounds are to be played within each division among the top four finishers in their respective divisions. Those games can be played while regular season play continues in the North Division to decide that division’s four playoff qualifiers.
The NHL schedule initially called for the regular season to end on May 8. That had previously been pushed back to May 11 to accommodate games that were postponed by COVID or weather-related reasons. The league said 54 games had been postponed since the season began on Jan. 13.
“The NHL will continue to assess the progression of the regular season before announcing definitive dates for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” the league said in a statement released Saturday. “With the newly revised end date for the regular season for the North Division, it is possible that the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the East, Central and West Divisions could open a few days earlier than the North Division.”
The extension of the regular season was necessary to accommodate rescheduled games for the Canucks, who had eight games postponed after a COVID-19 outbreak within the team. Twenty-one players and four staff members tested positive for a variant of the coronavirus, and the team hasn’t played since March 24. The Canucks are scheduled to return to practice Sunday and increase their activities during the week before facing the Edmonton Oilers on Friday at Rogers Arena.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning told NHL.com that he expects the majority of his ailing players will be able to return this week, “outside of two or three guys.”
The NHL finished the 2019-20 season in a bubble last September and, as a result, delayed the start of the 2020-21 season until January. It also cut each team’s schedule from 82 games to 56 and realigned its divisions to minimize travel and diminish the risks of contracting COVID-19.
It’s unclear if a delay in starting the playoffs will lead to a later awarding of the Stanley Cup and delay other scheduled events. The last possible day for the playoffs to end currently is July 9, with the expansion draft to stock the Seattle Kraken to take place on July 21 and the annual entry draft to take place on July 23-24.