By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NHL’s plans to have a real finish to the 2019-20 season probably change on an every-other-day basis. That’s just the nature of the timeline we’re living in right now thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But I think that a few things are likely coming into focus for a league that’s been paused for over two months now.
No. 1: If and when the league returns, they’re not going to have time to have the finish to the regular season they originally hoped for. 70 games (85 percent) is probably going to have to be good enough. And if you’re the Kings or Red Wings, there’s a zero point zero percent chance you actually want to haul yourself back to the rink just to play a few more meaningless games in a meaningless season.
But the league has maintained the notion that they want to give bubble teams a chance to make the postseason. That’s only fair, too. The Rangers, for example, would finish outside the playoff bracket if the league stuck with their typical one-through-eight approach despite being the fifth-best team in the NHL since New Year’s Day. Out West, the Wild went into the pause one point out of a playoff spot thanks to a 2020 run that saw them post the eighth-best point percentage in the NHL since Jan. 1. The Blues’ entire Cup run was created by their white-hot run around that same time in 2019, so denying these teams that chance would be terrible. Nobody asked to lose the final 15 percent of the season due to a super-virus.
So, No. 2 means giving those teams a chance without a regular season conclusion is going to require some off-the-wall ideas.
The one gaining the most steam — and has felt more like an inevitability at points throughout this hellish void — is a 24-team format for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This would qualify the top 12 teams in each conference for postseason play, keeping only the Sabres, Devils, Senators, Red Wings, and the league’s California-based teams (Ducks, Kings, and Sharks) home for the summer. No loss there. And as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun pointed out in his column earlier this week, this would add the Canadiens and Blackhawks to the mix. If you’re not making money at the gate, getting some big-time TV markets in the mix is the next-best thing.
Now, if you have doubts about a 24-team playoff, let me tell you that you’re not alone. I’ve been on the fence with this idea from the start, and there’s clearly some playoff teams who are not crazy about this idea. Not only does it feel like a gift that an otherwise mediocre team for the first 70 games of the season doesn’t deserve, but it also seems like a complete bastardization of the best playoff structure we have in sports. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are unpredictable as is, and now we’re gonna add another eight teams to the mix?
It’s chaotic. Almost too chaotic.
But this structure, if done properly, may actually be making the best out of a straight-up garbage situation.
Rather than throwing all 24 teams into one big pot, let’s assume that the NHL keeps their playoff structure settled around an East vs. West finish. And let’s assume that you want to establish some sort of advantage for the division’s best. Giving first-round byes (or make it so they can’t be eliminated at the very least) to the top two teams in each division would set you up for a play-in round that mirrors the opening round of March Madness, with the No. 5 vs. the No. 12, No. 6 playing the No. 11, No. 7 playing the No. 10, and the No. 8 playing the No. 9. (This has circulated as a potential option both in and outside league offices, and has gained traction as the logical go-to opening round solution in a 24-team format.)
Unlike March Madness, however, it’s not believed that these games would be single elimination. The NHL’s Bill Daly told ESPN last month that the league was not interested in one-off play-in games this summer. So let’s assume it’s a best-of-three that sets your field of eight in each conference like in any other normal season. This is the most natural way to unclog the logjam both conferences had around their wild card spots upon the season’s pause. It also makes the the (forever-undeserving) No. 12 team in each conference have to truly earn their playoff spot without running the risk of one of the league’s top teams losing out on a spot they actually earned over the course of 70 games by way of a freak, short-series loss.
And though the top teams have earned their status, having them continue to sit around while these teams play legit games isn’t beneficial, so this is where you entertain the idea of a mini-tournament or round robin involving the top four seeds. To truly incentivize these teams and get the playoff-level juices flowing, you could conclude this tourney with a reseeding based on its end results. This is another idea that’s been brought up as a potential go-to for the league, as it’d guarantee that those who established themselves as clear playoff favorites are given a real chance in a postseason that’ll probably feel anything but real.
Putting your best in the best position, especially when you’re giving those outside the normal playoff structure a legitimate chance to qualify, feels like a must upon any restart.
These would likely be the only short series of the restart, too, as the NHL has requested that teams keep arenas available through the month of August. They’re even willing to go into the fall and start their 2020-21 season in December, if necessary. (Keep in mind that your average Stanley Cup Playoffs tend to take about two months.) A willingness to push things go this deep both this year and next indicates a desire to have a finish with as few gimmicks as possible. The league probably doesn’t want to hand out the Stanley Cup in a best of five.
It’s all fun and (maybe) games, but when will it all happen?
Similar to MLB’s desire to have a Fourth of July first pitch for their 2020 season, July 1 (Canada Day) has been circled as a potential date of interest to the NHL, a source has told 98.5 The Sports Hub.
As you’d expect given the uncertainty of the world right now, there’s definitely a healthy and heavy dose of ‘best case scenario’ with that possible return date. But it may be within the realm of possibility should the NHL move into Phase 2 (unorganized, small group skates at reopened practice facilities) of their return-to-play plan within the next week or two as previously targeted. If Phase 2 moves ahead incident-free, a move into Phase 3 (a two-to-three week camp and ramp-up towards a return) would be next. Phase 4, of course, is a return to game action. Again, this timeline feels extremely ambitious, but so doesn’t everything else in our attempts to return to normalcy.
If successful — and cleared to move ahead into Phase 2, then 3, and then 4 — where these games would take place remains unknown.
There’s been talk of ‘hub cities’ (similar to what the NBA is looking at with Vegas and Orlando), but the idea of teams hosting games in their own (empty) arenas remains on the table, a source confirmed. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh told the Boston Globe on Friday that he wouldn’t be against opening a fan-less TD Garden this summer. Walsh has his own requirements that must be met before opening the arena doors, but this course change feels worth reading into given how adamant he’s been that the rather tight restrictions in Boston remain in place for the foreseeable future.
If other local officials sing similar tunes or begin to reopen their cities without spikes in infection rates, the need for hub cities decreases and it becomes more about in-city containment for visiting clubs.
But like Drug Church asked on “Swell,” does it work? No clue.
There’s still a ton of obstacles for the league to overcome to return to action. Testing obviously remains the biggest issue facing the league (and all leagues attempting a comeback for that matter), and the league has to advance out of Phase 1 and through another two phases before we even seriously talk about a return. For now, though, the league appears to be growing comfortable with a potential playoff plan, potential start date, and with potential locations in mind.
Until it all gets flipped on its head in about a week’s time, anyway.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.