The NHL organized its 2020-2021 season in deference to the COVID-19 pandemic, isolating its Canadian teams in their own division to avoid cross-border travel. But one of those teams will have to compete against its American counterparts during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the NHL says it needs answers on the Canadian border situation before that happens.

NHL Canadian Border playoffs
While Canadian teams will start the Stanley Cup playoffs competing against each other, Canadian border issues could become an issue for the NHL in later rounds. (Image: Julian Avram/Icon/Getty)

The NHL has informed the Canadian government that it needs an answer on border travel issues by June 1 in order to determine how the country’s policies will impact the Stanley Cup playoffs.

NHL considering multiple Canadian border solutions

There won’t be any issues during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Four teams from each division qualified for the postseason. During the first two rounds, those four teams will play against each other, essentially determining a divisional champion over two rounds. That means the four Canadian qualifiers out of the North Division won’t have to cross the border until the Stanley Cup semifinals.

But in that third round, cross-border travel will become unavoidable. Under current policies, American teams would need to quarantine before they could play in Canada – something that won’t work under any reasonable postseason schedule.

ESPN reported that the NHL is considering multiple solutions, including asking the Canadian government to grant a travel dispensation to the league thanks to its tight COVID protocols and rising vaccination numbers. Alternatively, the Canadian qualifier could play at an American NHL arena belonging to a team that failed to make the playoffs.

“The conversations are ongoing,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer told ESPN on Friday. “We’ve told them we really do need to know by the end of the first round, and that’s around June 1. That’s pretty much the date that we’ve talked to them about, saying we have to know one way or another.”

Toronto favorite to emerge from North Division

Of the four teams that qualified out of the North Division, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup this year. Toronto finished first in the North Division, and FanDuel Sportsbook rates the Leafs as a +650 pick to win the title, behind only the Colorado Avalanche (+450) and the Vegas Golden Knights (+550).

The Edmonton Oilers (+2200), Winnipeg Jets (+2800) and Montreal Canadiens (+3000) come into the Stanley Cup playoffs as relative long shots.

Last year, the NHL staged its playoffs in two bubble environments, one in Toronto and the other in Edmonton. A total of 24 teams participated in the postseason, which used the traditional conference alignment.

This time around, the NHL scrapped the conferences entirely. This week, the league announced that it won’t be awarding its famous conference championship trophies: the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Eastern Conference and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for the Western Conference.

“There are going to be things we always will remember about this season, and one of them is that we never handed the trophies out,” Mayer told ESPN.