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The NHL, despite the Dallas Stars’ issues, is more positioned to succeed than the NBA

The NHL was smarter to completely change its setup for this season.

With the Mavericks announcing five players out due to NBA health and safety protocols, the Stars stepped up and said, “Hold my beer.”

On the eve of what was supposed to be the season opener for the defending Western Conference champions, the Stars are without 17 players who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks. While the Mavericks managed to take enough healthy bodies (got to have eight) to Charlotte on Wednesday, the Stars’ first three games have been postponed. The earliest they could begin the season is Tuesday against Tampa Bay, the team that stopped them from hoisting a second Stanley Cup champions banner.

“We told guys the first day of camp that because of COVID, there was a good chance everyone was going to get to play,” coach Rick Bowness said. “We’ve got to get used to some of these guys. We don’t know them very well.”

The team is also without center Tyler Seguin and goaltender Ben Bishop, who won’t be around for months following offseason surgery. And yet...

Even with all of the above, I think the NHL is better equipped than the NBA to handle what lies ahead in second seasons derailed by the coronavirus. Both were successful last summer in finding different ways to isolate players and stage playoffs in empty arenas.

But you can’t realistically “bubble” an entire season, so both leagues are attempting something a bit more like business as usual, even without customers in many arenas. I’m skeptical of the Stars’ determination to put 5,000 fans in American Airlines Center night after night (the home opener is set for Jan. 22 against Nashville) while the Mavericks perform before empty chairs. But we will see what that looks like and how that goes.

Beyond that, the NHL owners were smarter to push forward with a shorter schedule. Down from the normal 82, the NHL is shooting for 56 games. The NBA is still trying to play 72. In a season largely without gate revenues, this was an opportunity to reduce the season, cut back on player injuries and the obvious risks the pandemic presents and play a season in which each game felt a bit more meaningful.

The NBA went for volume. The league has postponed nine games including three in a row for the Boston Celtics along with the Mavericks’ home game against New Orleans on Monday. More than 40 players are in health and safety protocols. The NHL’s biggest problem is the Stars — they have had more than half the positive COVID tests since Dec. 30 — but the league will manage to open the season with a five-game schedule Wednesday including the champion Lightning hosting Chicago.

The NHL completely changed its setup for this season with four new divisions, one involving teams only from Canada. The Stars now compete in the Discover Central Division and, yes, that’s a bit awkward although not as unsightly as the MassMutual East Division. Owners losing ticket revenues are entitled to a few more advertising dollars, I suppose.

The only teams Dallas plays all season will be Carolina, Columbus, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Florida and Tampa Bay. Because of where Dallas is situated geographically, the Stars don’t enjoy the reduced travel that so many clubs do. If you play in the East, you never leave that Boston-to-Washington corridor unless you consider a flight to Buffalo or Pittsburgh as “a trip out west.” You could probably bus to most of the games although I’m guessing that won’t happen.

So most teams will benefit not only from shorter trips but from the back-to-backs they regularly play in those cities. Dallas is scheduled to host Nashville Jan. 22 and 24 and Detroit on Jan. 26 and 28. In April, the Stars play four straight with the Red Wings — two in each city.

That’s a heck of a lot less travel than the NBA’s coast-to-coast schedule. As that league announced new protocols Tuesday that basically isolate players in hotel rooms on the road — players already are critical of the new rules — the NHL crosses its fingers and begins its season.

There is even a sense of optimism (if you can possibly call it that) there will be a return to more fighting this season with teams playing the same opponents over and over. I’m not sure that represents progress so much as a bone thrown to a few old school fans who, like all of us, are searching for anything that feels “back to normal” in the 2021 sports world.

The Stars should have their hands full battling through this start with so many players out on top of injuries that diminished the roster. Figure them for fourth place behind Carolina, Tampa Bay and Columbus.

But that gets them into the playoffs, and after I picked them to lose to Calgary, Las Vegas and Colorado last year, I’m not saying a word about how far this team is going. Like my old Cutlass in high school, they just want to get the darn thing started.

Find more Stars coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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