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Panthers Preparing for Unique 2020-21 Season

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - It was the news that every hockey fan had been waiting for.

After what felt like an eternity of itching with an anticipation and rummaging through rumors, the NHL and NHLPA finally announced on Sunday an agreement to play an abbreviated 2020-21 regular-season schedule of 56 games beginning Wednesday, Jan. 13 and concluding on May 8.

For those of you crunching the numbers, that's 56 games over the course of 116 days.

Buckle up.

"The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a release announcing the plan. "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. And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly Executive Director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our League back on the ice."

Going from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye, the Florida Panthers are now scheduled to open their training camp on Jan. 3. With no preseason tune-ups to speak of before the points start to count, those 10 days of camp will certainly be crucial to getting into game-mode in a hurry.

Luckily, if you've been keeping an eye on social media, you've likely seen that many members of the team are already back in South Florida working hard in preparation for the upcoming season.

On Saturday, Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov posted that he'd returned from Finland.

Owning a 35-26-8 record before the NHL season grinded to a halt in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Panthers haven't played competitively since they were eliminated by the New York Islanders in four games during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in the NHL's bubble in August.

And although we're still waiting on other important details such as safety protocols, rules and a schedule, it's clear that both fans and players are eager to return to life on and around the ice.

"This is what we do for a living, but it's also the game we love," new Panthers forward Alex Wennberg said on the Territory Talk podcast last week. "I feel like everyone is just super excited to get hockey going. It's going to be different, for sure. But maybe that's a good thing as well. It keeps you on your toes and makes you more excited about games."

With more news expected to come from the NHL and NHLPA in the coming days and weeks, here's what we already know about what is shaping up to be a very unique 2020-21 campaign.

CATS HEAD TO THE CENTRAL

Due to concerns over travel, the NHL's four divisions have undergone a major overhaul.

Now in the Central Division, the Panthers will strictly be competing against the Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and the defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Florida will face off against each of these teams eight times during the regular season.

In terms of familiarity with these foes, two of the clubs (Tampa Bay and Detroit) are also holdovers from the Atlantic Division like the Panthers. Then, as a fun throwback, you have Carolina, which used to battle the Cats in the now-defunct Southeast Division from 1998-2013.

As for Dallas and Chicago, the Panthers are used to seeing these clubs only twice a season due to the fact they usually reside in the Western Conference. As for Columbus, which moves over from the Metropolitan Division, the Cats typically clash with them three times a campaign.

Of these eight clubs, five finished this past season with at least 35 victories.

Looking outside of the Central, here's how the three other new divisions are shaping up:

NORTH (aka the "All Canadian Division"): Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.

WEST: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights.

EAST: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.

NEW PLAYOFF FORMAT

New divisions also mean a change to the NHL's postseason format.

Throwing wild cards out the window, the top four teams from each division (North, West, Central and East) will qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the goal to limit travel and contact once again, the first two rounds of the playoffs will take place within each of these new division.

That means that in the opening round the No. 1 team in a division with play the No. 4 team, and the No. 2 team will play the No. 3 team. From there, the winners of those two series will then face off against each other for a chance to win their division and advance on to the semifinals.

In other words, the Panthers need to beat out just four teams to qualify for the postseason.

I'll take those odds any day of the week.

NEW FACES IN FLORIDA

If you're just tuning back in, you'll also notice a lot of on-ice changes this season as well.

Since new Panthers general manager Bill Zito was hired back in September, both the team's roster and culture has been shaken up quite a bit in a short amount of time under his watch.

In terms of additions, Radko Gudas, Alex Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe and Ryan Lomberg were all on brought in on very savvy short-term, one-way deals during free agency, while Patric Hornqvist and Markus Nutivaara were added through trades.

"Play the game the right way, that's what we were looking for," Zito said following the opening day of free agency. "We want people who compete and who approach the game in a business-like, professional manner and who every day come to the rink and want to win and hate to lose."

Heading into 2020-21, that means that at least 33% of the roster will be different from last year.

The reason I say "at least" is because there's more than a few players working on two-way deals that could crack the roster this season as well, including a pair of dynamic forwards in former first-round picks Grigori Denisenko (15th overall, 2019) and Owen Tippett (10th overall, 2017).

Want to know more?

Check back closer to the start of the season for a full primer on Florida's roster.

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