The Return to Play and What it Means

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Gary Bettman and the NHL announced their plan to resume play and conduct the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This was something that we knew was coming, but it was good to get some additional information and clear up some loose ends that the rumors left us with. It also included details regarding the 2020 Draft, but I’ll get into that at a later date.

As I said in my post a few days ago regarding the format rumors, each conference is going to have the top 12 teams based on points percentage be involved in the postseason. Where things differ is how we determine the actual first round matchups. I’m going to be totally honest, the format I suggested for that was awful. I’m really happy they’re not going with my idea because they came up with a much better one. The way it’s going to work is the top four teams will play a round robin to determine the who is seeded 1-4. The remaining eight teams in each conference will play a qualifying round to determine the other four teams in each conference that will play for the Stanley Cup.

Now to get into the specifics about this play-in scenario. First, the top four are officially clinched and cannot be knocked out. After the qualifying round, the winners will play one of the top four seeds as determined by the round robin. It has yet to be determined if the conference playoffs will be determined by bracket or by seeding. That being said, I feel it’s more likely that the lowest remaining seed from the play-in will face the highest seed from the round robin, and so forth. The first and second round still have yet to be determined when it comes to length, whether it be best-of-5 of best-of-7. I imagine the first round will be the former, and the second the latter, as that’s how it was before the mid-80s and how the AHL currently does things. The last two rounds, however, will be best-of-7.

This format is essentially the NHL’s way of completing the regular season without actually completing the regular season. If you’re a fan of the seven teams that won’t be participating, they likely weren’t going to get in anyway, so this is pretty reasonable. Even some of the teams that will be in it arguably wouldn’t have made it. Not to knock Chicago and Montreal, but did we really think they had a chance to make it when the season paused? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. This format is basically for the teams like the Rangers and Jackets that were right on the cusp and could’ve squeaked in with a hot finish. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it’s just about all the NHL could do to please as many people as possible.

When it comes to where this will all take place, the league will do two Hub Cities. One for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference. As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, the cities are: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver. What this means for the games yet to come is that with the lack of available ice surfaces, we’ll likely see one of two things: either multiple games in a day from the same city, or games spread out over a longer period of time. Frankly, I think the latter is more likely given that we need to put the health of players and staff at the forefront. From the perspective of someone who loves hockey, though, seeing a game start at noon while I’m working from home sounds incredible. Either way, we’re getting closer to knowing where the games are going to be played, and now are just dependent on the continued efforts to contain COVID-19.

Wrapping it all up, what this all means is that the NHL cleared the biggest hurdle that is within their control. Before the announcement, we were dealing with two unknown variables, and are now left with one. Granted, it is the hurdle that paused the season in the first place, but it’s still one less hurdle. On the other side, we have to remember that this is not a 100% guarantee. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, and a positive for the NHL being the first league to announce a return plan, this is all if health and government officials deem this plan to be possible to execute. We also need to keep in mind that at the EARLIEST, training camp starts July 1, and the play-in starts in the final week of the month. We’ll see the playoffs go into the early fall, pushing the 2020-2021 season back to the middle of winter. While some people think that’s horrible and that we should just preserve next season, allow me to present a counter argument.

For decades, the NHL has competed with the NFL in the early season, the start of baseball when the season wraps up, and the NBA for the entire season. Unless someone is a legitimate hockey fan, the unfortunate reality is that they’ll likely choose one of those other sports. Now, imagine if the season of the NHL was completely shaken up from a timing perspective. What if the season started at the end of November or beginning of December and the Stanley Cup is awarded in August? Imagine an entire summer of playoff hockey with virtually no competition for viewership. The only other sports going on at the time are golf and baseball. While I love both of those sports, summer baseball is boring and only a few summer golf tournaments actually matter. This gives the NHL and hockey in general a much higher potential for exposure, and the chance to win some additional viewers they may not otherwise get. Plus, imagine wrapping up a round of golf on a Saturday afternoon and getting home in time to grill burgers while you watch playoff hockey. That sounds like pure heaven to me.

Either way you slice it, not everybody is going to be happy about the format, or how it’ll affect the future, and so on. What we can all be happy about, however, is the fact that we’ve got positive news coming from the NHL at a time where we all need good news. Stay safe, everyone, and let’s hope this actually happens.

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