Although there is not yet an official start date for the 2021 NHL season, progress is being made and the future is becoming a bit more clear.

On Tuesday, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to keep the economic framework established in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This comes after a handful of weeks of debates between the two organizations, with commissioner Gary Bettman proposing to increase deferred payments and caps on escrow, which did not bode well with the players. 

Tuesday’s agreement is huge in eventually beginning the 2021 season. As of right now, the starting date is set to be January 13th, with training camps opening just prior to the New Year. The season is expected to last 56 games with a brand new division realignment – including an all-Canadian division. 

Nonetheless, in any normal year, the World Junior Championships would interrupt the NHL season and cause young, highly coveted players and prospects to miss time. This year, however, the World Juniors comes at a time where there are no NHL games being played.

Players like Kirby Dach (Chicago) and Dylan Cozens (Buffalo) have been released and given permission by their respective franchises to play in this highly anticipated tournament. After Dach was added to Team Canada’s training camp roster, people began thinking that the Rangers would release Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, two players who have previously made themselves known at this tournament.

The Rangers shut that down last week by first stating that they would not release Lafreniere and then preceding to say the same about Kakko.

Although it would’ve been fun to see Kakko and Lafreniere in action before the season starts up, this was definitely the right choice for the Rangers to make. There’s no reason to take the risk of injury just for them to play on a lower level.

Kakko, at just 19 years old, already has 66 NHL games under his belt. He’s played against top players at the absolute highest competition. Kakko has also made an appearance at the 2020 IIHF World Championships, helping Finland to win their third Championship. Kakko put on a show at that tournament, registering 7 points in 10 games against some of the best players in the world – all before getting drafted and making his NHL debut. The 2021 season will be huge for Kakko’s development, after a shaky rookie campaign. It makes sense that he wasn’t made available for World Juniors.

Photo: Martin Rose/Getty Images

The Lafreniere decision has definitely been the subject of more debate. Team Canada’s training camp roster is very strong, including names like Dach, Quinton Byfield, Dylan Holloway, and Bowen Byram, to name a few (the roster also includes Rangers prospects Braden Schneider and Dylan Garland, and included prospect Matthew Robertson before he was deemed ‘unfit to play’ and sent home). 

The defending champion Canada will still be a strong team, with or without Lafreniere, but they would’ve been clear favorites had the forward been released to play.

Despite the debates, it’s smart that Lafreniere was not released. The biggest reason why has to be injury – there’s no point taking the risk. In the 2020 World Juniors, Lafreniere suffered a leg injury that was initially rumored to keep him out for months. It didn’t, but with Lafreniere itching to make his NHL debut, it would be an incredible disappointment if something of the same caliber were to happen again. Obviously, Lafreniere needs to develop, but with how well he’s performed against players of his age group, it’s time for him to take the next step. 

The World Juniors will still be an unbelievable tournament, with or without Kakko and Lafreniere, and if everything works out for it to happen. Right now, teams are facing many challenges with COVID-19 reaching training camps. Teams like Sweden and Canada have each had outbreaks that are still trying to be contained.
The number one priority, as always, should be to keep players safe no matter what.

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