Unusual NHL 2021 season may include realignment

We’re all still stuck in this alternate universe in which we constantly deny reality. Of course, one of the questions posed to Henrik Lundqvist in his introductory Zoom conference as a Capital on Friday was about a return to the Garden to face the Rangers. Eddie … Eddie … Eddie, and all that.

But isn’t it likely that when or if the Capitals and Lundqvist come to town, they’ll be playing in a building either devoid of fans or one with the capacity capped at maybe 4,000? Maybe NBC can pipe in fake amplified chants of “Henrik … Henrik … Henrik,” and superimpose digital tears trickling down the King’s cheeks and no one across the continent will be the wiser.

Actually, what if the Rangers and Capitals don’t meet at all next season, the way that, say, the Yankees never played the Tigers this year for the first time ever?

We don’t know. Front offices across the NHL are constructing rosters within flat-cap and internally imposed budgetary restraints for a regular season that will be unlike any that have come before. We don’t know when the season will start, though the league and the NHLPA have agreed on a target date of Jan. 1. We don’t know whether travel restrictions between the United States and Canada will be relaxed for the NHL. We don’t know anything.

The league, primarily through commissioner Gary Bettman, is talking about having a full 82-game schedule, but just about everyone in the industry is expecting a season of between 60 and 68 games that will begin later than the target date. The NHL has been nothing but flexible in its response to the pandemic. The league and the NHLPA should maintain that approach regarding 2021-22.

Unless there is assurance from those in authority that teams will be accorded free transit across the border, the NHL will have to realign and create an all-Canadian conference in which the seven teams north of the border compete amongst themselves. It is easy creating that subset. Designing three other conferences based on geography to limit travel is not so easy, because a handful of teams are always going to be isolated.

Beyond the Canadian conference, Slap Shots has established one eight-team conference, one nine-team conference and another seven-team conference. It is probably not ideal, but here’s a preliminary look:

A: Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit.

B: Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia.

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

Teams would play exclusively within their assigned conference. The schedule would feature two-game series to limit the number of flights and hotel check-ins and check-outs. The playoff format would have to be reimagined. The league is putting on a public face that, beginning Jan. 1, it will be business as usual.

No, it won’t.

It wasn’t a wheel, it was a carousel on which NHL free-agent goaltenders took a ride on Friday, with a surfeit of talent and high-profile résumés available for the taking in unprecedented manner.

But let us not forget about the Market of 1998, when marquee goaltenders John Vanbiesbrouck, Curtis Joseph and Mike Richter entered into a volatile game of musical creases. Remember (or maybe you don’t)?

The Flyers had expressed early interest in Richter, who was getting nowhere fast in negotiations with the Rangers. In fact, the Rangers were certain that the Flyers had expressed their interest in Richter too early and were guilty of tampering.

But Philadelphia did not even attempt to sign Richter when the market opened. Instead they went immediately to Vanbiesbrouck two years after the goaltender had led the Panthers to the Stanley Cup final.

That opened up a spot in Florida. It was one that Richter was ready to fill. In fact, he had agreed in principle to become a Puddy Tat when it became known the Rangers were zeroing in on Joseph, who in Edmonton had engineered shocking playoff upsets in consecutive years.

Somehow, the Garden hierarchy would not authorize the funds to sign Cujo. Don’t ask me. That happened again a few years later when the team could not get the authority to sign Brett Hull before he went to Detroit. Who knows?

Upon the deal with Joseph falling through, Richter reneged on an agreement made by his agent, and returned to the Rangers. Joseph, meanwhile, landed in Toronto.

Oh and by the way? Those three were on a wheel. A wheel of fortune.

The Capitals’ decision to select Darren Veitch fifth overall in 1980 one spot ahead of the Oilers selecting Paul Coffey still stands as the most dumbfounding call in league annals. But that was a one-shot miss.

It becomes more incredible by the year, however, to review Boston’s work in 2015 when the team had Picks 13, 14, 15 and used them on, respectively, Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn, when Mathew Barzal went to the Islanders at 16, Kyle Connor went to the Jets at 17 and Thomas Chabot went to the Senators at 18, and not place this in a Mammoth Failure category all its own.

How many Cups for the Bruins if they had nailed even one of the three?

So the narrative about not needing an elite goaltender to win the Cup has been muted since Tampa Bay won it behind Andrei Vasilevskiy, hasn’t it?

The 2014-15 Rangers were the best of the Lundqvist era, but I am prone to believing that the 2011-12 Black-and-Blueshirts would have taken out their descendants in a best-of-seven.

Only, though, if John Tortorella wouldn’t cut down his bench the way he did with the 2012 Rangers when exhaustion, as much as the Devils, was the cause of the team’s premature demise in the conference finals following a pair of seven-game series in the first two rounds.

Eight years later, Lundqvist is gone without a Cup and we are all still left to wonder why Stu Bickel averaged 5:10 of ice, Mike Rupp got 6:13 per and John Mitchell clocked in at 7:05 a night through 20 games that included 61:18 of extra time.

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