The NHL is set for a strange season. Here’s why it will be among the most unusual in history.

The NHL has had two seasons shortened and another canceled because of labor disputes. Last season was paused in March because of a pandemic and eventually ended in late September.

This season, the NHL will try to navigate another shortened season amid a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic. If the league can pull it off, a 56-game regular season will start Wednesday and end May 8, with the Stanley Cup being awarded by July 9.

"We have to be ready to adjust and adapt to anything that may happen," Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a conference call Monday. "We’re going to have to make judgments in real time."

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NHL POINT PROJECTIONS: How we see the 2021 season unfolding

Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) scores against Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (70) during a playoff game last year. They will vie for the top of the newly formed Central Division this year. (Photo: John E. Sokolowski, USA TODAY Sports)

What will be unique about this season: 

There will be COVID-19 disruptions: There already have. Last week, the NHL announced that six Dallas Stars players and two staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. Instead of opening the season on Thursday, the Stars are looking at Jan. 19, meaning three games will have to be rescheduled. The playoffs were virus-free because they were played in a bubble. But this regular season will be played at home arenas, increasing chances that a player could be exposed. Unlike the 2020 playoffs, the NHL will divulge the names of players if they test positive during the regular season.

The divisions are realigned: The closing of the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel necessitated the formation of an all-Canada division. That required shuffling the other divisions. It was mostly based on geography, but St. Louis and Minnesota will play with California teams. Most rivalries were maintained and the Chicago-Detroit one was re-established. Teams will play solely within their division, facing each opponent eight times in the U.S. divisions and nine to 10 times in the Canadian one. Including playoffs, it's possible a Canadian team could face an opponent 17 times this season. 

Playoff changes: It's always conference vs. conference in the Stanley Cup Final. Not necessarily this season. The first two rounds will be played within the division. The division winners will advance to the semifinals, but seeding will be based on points rather than geography. So two traditional East teams or two traditional West teams could end up as opponents in the Final.

Taxi squads: To help teams deal with potential positive cases and contact tracing, they will have a taxi squad of four to six players who will practice and be ready to step in if needed.

Commercial opportunities: NHL teams will have no fans or a limited number of fans at the beginning of the season. The league is stepping up with sponsorship opportunities so teams don't have to refund money. Each division will include the name of a corporate sponsor. And more than a dozen teams will include a sponsor name on their helmets.

Schedule anomalies: The league is trying to limit travel, so many teams will spend two games in a city before going to another city or heading home. Canadian teams will sometimes play three games in a city if making a cross-country trip. The Sharks will open with eight games on the road because Santa Clara County rules bar them from playing there. There is no All-Star Game or Winter Classic, but the league will play two outdoor games at Lake Tahoe Feb. 20 (Vegas vs. Colorado) and Feb. 21 (Philadelphia vs. Boston).

Sloppy play early? Training camps were short, and there were no preseason games, only scrimmages. Seven teams have not played a game since March. Positive tests and contact tracing could limit practices during the season. That could have an impact on the quality of play.

Familiar faces in new places: Players move all the time, but this offseason had some surprising changes. Joe Thornton, who played 15 seasons with the Sharks, decided to chase a Stanley Cup in Toronto. The Bruins passed on bringing back longtime captain Zdeno Chara, and he signed with the Capitals. Longtime Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo got the big-money contract he sought from the Golden Knights. Braden Holtby, who won a Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy in Washington, is now in Vancouver.

Missing faces: Goalie Henrik Lundqvist needed heart surgery and will miss the season. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford, who signed with the Devils, announced his retirement before playing a game with New Jersey. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is on leave as he deals with symptoms that leave him "drained and lethargic."

Missing voices: NBC Sports play-by-play legend Mike Emrick retired after calling his 22nd Stanley Cup Final. The network is not bringing back analyst Mike Milbury, who made an "insensitive" comment during last season's playoffs. Penguins radio voice Mike Lange, 72, known for phrases like "Scratch my back with a hacksaw," won't go into the booth at the start of the season as he waits to get a coronavirus vaccination. 

Trades could be difficult: The trade deadline is April 12, and in recent years, most of the bigger deals have been made before the final day. This year, trades will be difficult because players switching teams in the United States face a seven-day quarantine if they fly commercially to their new city. Players traded from a U.S. city to a Canadian city face a potential 14-day quarantine. In a shortened season, that will be a long time without access to a player.

The expansion draft looms: NHL general managers must decide who they'll make available for the Seattle Kraken's expansion draft. Some in-season moves will be made with that in mind. The deadline for submitting the list is July 17 and the draft is July 21. Ideally, GMs would like to avoid having their former players become stars as they did during the Vegas Golden Knights' expansion draft.

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