By Mark Zimmaro
Depending how you look at it, some big strides were made in an effort for the National Hockey League to return to operations and save the 2019-20 season.
It was announced late last week that the NHL’s Players Association agreed to a 24-team return-to-play format, subject to reaching an overall agreement with the league.
“The Executive Board of the NHLPA has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup,” the NHLPA said in a statement on Friday. “Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”
First and foremost, this doesn’t guarantee play will resume anytime soon or perhaps at all this year. But it’s a good sign the league has put the wheels in motion so it doesn’t have to scramble at the last moment when time could be crucial.
As the statement suggests, there are plenty of obstacles to navigate before we see any NHL action and the safety of players and staff is at the forefront of the concerns.
If, and it’s a big If, an agreement is reached on testing players and staff and it is deemed safe for the league to resume (the NHL and the NHLPA historically don’t agree on much), it will certainly look a lot different than the Stanley Cup Playoffs we’ve all come to know and love.
If hockey does return this season, here’s what we know:
The regular season is likely over: A 24-team scenario would not include the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks. It was likely too difficult to find any motivation for the bottom-dwellers to compete in any form of shortened regular season wrap-up. Their season is done. Let’s jump right to the playoffs.
The standings mattered. Sort of: Most leaked proposals seemed to indicate the top four in each conference are guaranteed a playoff spot. This is where the Flyers fit in. Philly, along with Washington, Tampa Bay and Boston, will wait to find out their opponent in the conference quarterfinals while eight other Eastern Conference teams duke it out to earn one of the other four spots. Same goes in the West. As for the guys who finished fifth through 12th in the conference, the standing held little value at all. Pittsburgh had the sixth-best record in the entire league, and now is involved in what could be a coin flip to make the round of 16. Montreal and Chicago were selling off players at the deadline and now they’re in a coin-flip, too.
Home ice has melted away: Figures, right? The Flyers were 24-6-4 at the Wells Fargo Center and were in line to have home-ice advantage in the first round. It’s almost certain that games will be played at “hubs,” with no fans in attendance. However, being designated as the home team would still earn the right to match up lines. In the playoffs, that’s big. Think last at-bats in baseball.
This is going to get weird: Nothing is going to seem normal about these playoffs, especially after what would probably be a three-month layoff in the best-case scenario. Empty stadiums, weird formats, more teams and an asterisk will be acknowledged next to this year’s winner by everyone but this year’s winner. Here’s my advice: Enjoy it for what it is. It’s still meaningful and it’s entertaining hockey when there’s not much else going on. I’m all in.
Here’s what we don’t know. Aside from the actual when, where and how’s, there are a few other unanswered questions on the table.
Are play-in games actually considered playoffs? This is tricky. Player contract bonuses and conditional draft picks depend on how carefully worded these things are. It’s likely these round-of-24 play-in games will fall in purgatory. They won’t be considered regular season games because it would affect statistics and trophies. But they probably won’t be considered playoff games, either. Also, keep in mind players get paid salary for regular season games. They don’t for playoffs. However, as long as television revenue pours in, it easies the players’ burden on fulfilling escrow agreements.
How long will the playoff series be? One would assume the play-in rounds will be shorter than the traditional seven-game series. Maybe best-of-five? But will the rest of the 16-team bracket go back to seven games? There’s no guarantee. Keep in mind, the league still hopes to have a full season in 2020-21, so training camp would begin in September.
Will playoffs brackets re-seed at any point? The divisional matchups were abandoned to make this all work. With many play-in series being toss-ups, the league could find it beneficial to re-seed. Travel is not an issue.
What do the teams on bye do during play-in round? It seems like the top four in each conference will play some sort of round-robin to stay loose while other squads fight for their lives. It could determine playoff seedings in the next round, which would make it worthwhile for teams to ramp up the competition. But you’d have to think a 100-point Boston team would be upset losing out on seeding to a team that was 11 points behind just because of a weird warmup.
What will rosters look like? The American Hockey League has canceled its season, so there’s nowhere to call up players. It’s likely there will be extended rosters, like in baseball. You’ll still dress 20 but you may have more players on location practicing with the teams.
Will it be good? We hope so. Hockey players are modern-day gladiators, and it could be interesting to see full-strength teams battle it out over the next two months. Sports as a whole seem a bit distant. But once the adjustment is made, it should be a fun ride.
Let’s get weird.