As social distancing and quarantine regulations get tighter and more cases to test positive for COVID-19 across both America and Canada, the odds are shrinking that the NHL’s 2019-20 season will find a satisfactory ending with the awarding of the Stanley Cup.
Of course, that does not mean fans and players cannot still hope for best-case outcomes.
It has been a week and better since NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman “paused” the current NHL season. While that isn’t actually a lot of time, it sure feels like it – especially since health experts are cautioning sports leagues that timetables cannot resume for at least two or three months. Until June, large crowds and gatherings are discouraged, which means no audiences for hockey games, even if they could resume the season.
With all this time expected to be missed, most analysts and hockey experts are abandoning the notion that the NHL will finish the regular season.
So far, however, Commissioner Bettman is committed to awarding the Stanley Cup regardless, which has created several interesting make-shift playoff schemes.
1) Just Jump Ahead With the Current Top 16 Teams
This is the most straightforward, though possibly least fair, idea. The majority of the season has already been played. The top teams in each division have, for the most part, earned their spots in the playoffs. Though no one has clinched the President’s Trophy yet, the Bruins are making a decent case for it as the only team with 100 points through 70 games.
Beyond Boston, though, most teams are still in a tight race. There are only four points between the first (Washington) and third (Pittsburgh) place teams in the Metropolitan Division and ten points between the first (Vegas) and first out-of-wild-card (Vancouver) place teams in the Pacific. That’s not even describing how tight the actual wild card race itself is, in each division.
As well, not all teams have played an equal number of games. The Islanders are one single point out of a wild card spot but have two games in hand on Columbus, the current second wild card. Granted the Islanders have not been playing their best hockey all season, but they were finally finding their best hockey in recent weeks. Could they have broken back into the wild card (and held that position)? Quite possibly.
Despite all of this, there might not be enough time at the end of this pandemic to even out the season, so jumping directly into the playoffs with the current standings would be the easiest method.
2) Jump Ahead With Point Total Percentages
This idea makes the most sense if the League wants to truncate the season with as few complaints as possible. The team that played more games and earned more points might be stiffed, but teams with games in hand will be given the benefit of the doubt through math. The final sixteen teams won’t be drastically different at the end of the day. The wild card spots will be most heavily affected, but that’s how the final push for the playoffs always goes.
3) 24-Team Playoffs Structure
Instead of each team finishing the final ten or fifteen games, qualifying rounds will be held for the playoffs. The top three teams in each division would be left alone, but the teams still in the wild card race would play each other to earn the final spots.
In the Eastern Conference, that would mean (9) New York Islanders vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens and (10) New York Rangers vs. (11) Florida Panthers, followed by the winners of these match-ups vs. the current wild card teams.
In the West, it would mean (9) Vancouver Canucks vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks and (10) Minnesota Wild vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes, followed by the winners of these match-ups vs. the current wild card teams.
Personally, I like this scenario best. It preserves the spirit of the fight for the playoffs in the least amount of time. Plus, the qualifying rounds do not have to be extensive. They could be sudden death, one game only proposition – the equivalent of a team that finished in four or five games (in this case all of the top three teams) waiting for their opponent to finish a longer, overtime-filled series.
4) August Playoffs and October Draft
An undisclosed group of players has proposed to the NHLPA that this pause for the coronavirus pandemic is turned into the official off-season and that the playoffs would follow, beginning in late July.
Training camps would be held in July so that players have a chance to shake the rust off and potentially even out the game totals. Then the battle for the Stanley Cup would take place throughout August and September. October would feature the draft, the free agency period, and another (more traditional) bout of training camps for the next season’s roster, and the official 2020-21 season would begin in earnest in November.
Odd as it sounds, this idea also makes sense. A few ruffles would have to be smoothed out, but it allows for the most quarantine time and the fullest route to the Stanley Cup. It’s a tight time crunch throughout the fall months, though, and would undoubtedly result in several harsh injuries to players not fully ready for the brutality of playoff hockey immediately after the off-season. It’s bad enough that players already “play through” cracked ribs and fractured ankles in the post-season.
5) A 31-Team Tournament
It’s hockey, March Madness-style: what would happen if every team made the playoffs? All thirty-one teams would be placed in a bracket, and one would have to win every single game to get the Stanley Cup. It’s a bit excessive and time-consuming, but I almost want to find out.
Which do you prefer?
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