Inside the NHL

An abbreviated NHL season begins Jan. 13 and with that announcement comes news the Kraken’s on-ice debut is only a bit more than nine months away.

The league had contemplated pushing back the start of the Kraken’s inaugural 2021-22 campaign until next November or December, but instead opted for a shorter summer offseason and opening as usual by October.

As for the already-delayed 2020-21 schedule, the plan is a 56-game regular season running until May 8 and playoffs until about mid-July in a non-bubble format, with the league hoping it won’t be overwhelmed by COVID-19 infections and restrictions.

And while that plays out, the Kraken will move ahead full-throttle in preparation for a long-distant NHL dream that today feels a lot more immediate.

“There’s an enormous amount of things that need to get done,’’ Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said Monday, after the league’s weekend announcement of its plans. “And part of that is our ambition to do it right. We have high hopes for this organization. Our fans definitely have high hopes. And to get it done the way we need to get it done, we have a lot of work in front of us these next nine months.’’ 

Most important is the $930 million overhaul of Climate Pledge Arena, which Leiweke said remains on track for a “late summer’’ reopening – though an exact date won’t be known for several months. The NHL starting the 2021-22 season in October is an indicator further construction delays aren’t expected, though the league has kept some wiggle room by not yet announcing whether it will open early that month as usual or a bit later on.

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The new sign atop Climate Pledge Arena is lit up for the first time on Tuesday evening, Dec. 8, 2020. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

An even tighter deadline looms with the Kraken’s future practice facility at Northgate Mall. Team officials assumed all along it would need the venue ready for a traditional September training camp and the components most crucial to that – the players’ locker room, fitness center and main ice rink – are on-track for mid-July completion.

The venue’s two remaining public rinks, interior restaurant and bar area will be finalized much closer to the start of training camp.

The team’s on-ice preparation remains largely unchanged, as NHL expansion and entry drafts should still happen around late-July as previously expected. All teams except Vegas must submit expansion draft protected lists by July 17, and starting July 18, the Kraken has a 10-day exclusive window to negotiate with free agents left unprotected.

If the Kraken signs a free agent before the draft, it counts as the team’s expansion pick from the roster of that player’s former team.

As for hiring a head coach, Leiweke said general manager Ron Francis has “a chance to look at more work and this upcoming season and that’s what he’s going to do.’’

That keeps open the possibility of Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour reuniting in Seattle with former boss and teammate Francis. Brind’Amour was expected to sign a long-term extension with the Hurricanes, but the longer his final contract season plays out there without a deal, the greater the chance of the Kraken competing for his services.

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Certainly, no one yet knows how the coming season will impact the finances of the Hurricanes and other teams. Some, like Tampa Bay and Dallas, hope to have several thousand fans per game in attendance while others will play in empty arenas.

Those inconsistent safety protocols will likely heighten debate about the NHL resuming play during a pandemic that has killed more than 318,000 people in this country.

Junior hockey leagues across Canada have either halted play indefinitely or delayed their seasons, the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in an Edmonton bubble zone announced 10 positive COVID-19 tests this past weekend while seven northeastern U.S. states suspended interstate youth hockey the remainder of the year following outbreaks.

Meanwhile, epidemiologists are exploring whether hockey may be more prone to infections because of arena ventilation systems and the way players breathe heavily for short spurts.

That means, unlike the strict bubble-zone, COVID-19-free Stanley Cup Playoffs played this past fall, the league is venturing into far riskier territory.

Teams will play only within each of four temporarily created regional divisions — East, Central, West, and a North division comprised of the seven Canadian-based teams — to reduce travel and avoid crossing international borders. The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs.

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The first two rounds will continue as intra-division play between teams seeded 1-4. Division champions will then again be seeded 1-4 and cross over to play one another in semifinal and final rounds. 

But the entire setup still faces stumbling blocks as health authorities in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have yet to sign off.

Also, the San Jose Sharks will open training camp in Arizona because ongoing restrictions in Santa Clara County prevent them from using their facilities.

“While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play,’’ NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement put out Sunday. 

The league is expected to require teams to restrict themselves to hotels and arenas during road games. It also has contingency plans allowing games in one or more “neutral site’’ venues per division if needed. 

That could be the case with the Sharks and at least three teams north of the border. While Quebec’s government has indicated the Montreal Canadiens will likely be allowed to play at home, British Columbia is reportedly adamant about not having opponents travel to Vancouver to play the Canucks.

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And in Ontario, where a province-wide post-Christmas lockdown is reportedly coming, health authorities have expressed doubts about letting the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators play at their arenas. 

Leiweke and the Kraken remain hopeful things will normalize by their debut. Getting fans in the stands will be paramount to recouping a $650 million franchise fee and the billion-dollar arena and practice facility investments.

“I remember being disappointed we were going to have to wait a whole extra year,” Leiweke said of the league mandating the Kraken launch in 2021 instead of 2020. “And it seemed like an eternity. But in retrospect, it was an incredible break. It’s one thing that if it had gone the other way, it would have been incredibly difficult.”