By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Let’s get one thing straight: The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs — if they’re able to get off the ground at some point this summer as planned — are going to be weird. Everything about this season has “weird-ass champion” written all over it. (Who’s your designated weird-ass money on? I’m tempted to go with Columbus or Carolina.) It’s also been enough to get people throwing around some “goofy tournament” and “asterisk” negativity at alarming rates.
But the truth is that this format is actually kind of perfect for 2020.
First of all, the entire “asterisk” thing is nonsense. It’s not as if 12 teams have been playing while the other 12 have been off. Everybody is starting from scratch and everybody will get a three-week training camp to reinstall their programs. How it shakes out from there is anybody’s guess, but everyone’s starting from the ground floor. If we’re going with the true meaning of the term, that alone should wipe out any idea of an “asterisk.” If that fails, just fall back on my own personal motto as we gear up for this finish: It’s only an asterisk season if a team you don’t like wins it. Seems like a fair compromise.
As far as the “goofy tournament” thing, yeah, you got me there. Throwing an additional eight teams (when six would’ve done the trick just fine) into the field raises an eyebrow. But this absolutely hurts your Penguins, Maple Leafs, and Oilers more than it does a team like the Bruins; Pittsburgh and the Oilers have drawn No. 12 seed matchups against the Canadiens and Blackhawks, and this pause will see the Leafs square off with a healthier Blue Jackets squad instead of a Stamkos-less Lightning team as originally intended without this pause. Elimination is on the line for those clubs, too. The Bruins? They’re just playing in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding for the conference’s top four teams. It’s just not nearly as heavy as the situations those aforementioned clubs find themselves in upon a restart.
The risks just aren’t as serious for teams that earned their keep over an 85 percent finished season.
Even with that in mind, though, I get it! Believe me, I get it: The Bruins were the best team in the conference by eight points and now have a chance to lose that in just three games. The math doesn’t check out.
And with this system for the conference’s top four, we’ve been quick to say that it’s wrong that the regular season no longer matters for a team like the B’s (and Blues in the Western Conference). But that’s not entirely true. This round-robin will be played with regular-season overtime rules and a point system, and should a team find themselves tied in points, the regular-season point percentage will be utilized as the tiebreaker. That favors the Bruins, who entered the pause with the league’s top point percentage, over the entire field.
So, basically, you’re asking that the Bruins be… well… the Bruins for three games. If systems hold true (this is something Bruce Cassidy has preached as their greatest strength upon a return), and barring a team going 3-0-0, that shouldn’t be a daunting task for the Bruins. If they are who we’ve said they are for 70 games, going 2-1-0 isn’t this impossible task. Especially against opponents operating from the same position as themselves. Again, there are no definitive advantages here. Everybody will be working on the same timeline.
This is also the only way to put the teams in the play-in best-of-five and those in the top four on the same footing. You just can’t get a feel for playoff intensity with glorified warm-up games, and the players would be the first to admit that. (I’d argue that the Black and Gold’s intrasquad scrimmage ahead of their Stanley Cup Final meeting with the Blues did more harm than good last year.)
This is absolutely the best way to get the playoff-level juices flowing without risking an undeserved elimination for the conference’s best. And I’d honestly argue that this is a better way to get a true playoff-level postseason than throwing 16 teams into the ring saying have at it right out of the gate. That’s just asking for a compromised field.
The most important thing to note here when it comes to this dilemma involving the round-robin and play-in tourney: Home-ice really doesn’t exist here. It just doesn’t. These games have an almost 100 percent chance of being played in empty arenas and in out-of-market hub cities. Even if a playoff team’s home market is selected as a hub city, those players will not be permitted to stay at their own homes and will instead have to stay in the league-designated hotel. When you’re talking about the benefit of seeding, you’re really just talking about a battle for last change and faceoff side selection. That’s meaningful, of course, but it’s not like you’re walking into the Bell Centre and dealing with a crowd that draws penalties with the best of them, or subjecting yourself to the House of Horrors that Washington’s Capital One Arena has been for years. It just doesn’t matter like it would in any other postseason.
We should have also come far enough to realize this isn’t like any other season, and we should have come far enough to straight-up embrace the idea of getting hockey back by any means necessary.
And at the end of the day, this beats the bag out of almost any other real alternative. 29 of the league’s 31 teams voted to move ahead with this format. The players want to play and crown a champion. Nobody in the league — not even those on since-eliminated teams — wants to a ’94 Expos situation. (Speaking for the Bruins, this feels especially true for a team captained by a 43-year-old and with their top two centers in their mid-30s.)
The asterisk the league’s players seemed concerned with was a “*: No champion crowned (COVID-19 pandemic)” and they realized the only thing worse than a 24-team tournament would’ve been no tournament at all. No matter your purist takes on playoff hockey, you know this to be the true in your heart of hearts, too.
So let’s get weird.
It’s better than getting nothing but another forever-unresolved “what could have been?”