The NHL won't consider anything less than 48 games if the league plays a shortened campaign in 2021, sources told ESPN's Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski.
The NHL is targeting Jan. 1 as a start date for next season. Awarding the Stanley Cup before the Summer Olympics begin July 23 is ideal, but it's not necessary for the league.
"I think there is some flexibility if we were to choose that route. There's a lot left to be played out on the Olympics front too," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "We have models that extend past the Olympic time period. Those are alternatives that are on the table. I can't tell you they're the ones that are necessarily going to be pursued, but I think there's some flexibility there."
There are obvious incentives to having a full 82-game season in 2021-22 for the Seattle Kraken's inaugural campaign and the first year of a new U.S. TV contract. NBC's television deal with the NHL expires after 2020-21.
The league previously used a 48-game schedule for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Teams play 82 games in a typical regular season.
Regardless of how long next season is or the format used, fans could potentially return to arenas.
"I think the ultimate goal is to end up with fans in the arenas. I don't think we'll get to capacity, but I think we'll have enough socially distanced fans," an NHL source told Wyshynski.
The league definitely wants fans in the stands for the playoffs if local restrictions allow it, sources told Wyshynski.
Fans have made their way back into stadiums across North America. Select NFL cities have hosted spectators at a limited capacity, and Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas reached about 25% capacity during the 2020 World Series.