Written by Chris Kubala
The NHL has been on pause since March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been plenty of potential doomsday scenarios thrown around, commissioner Gary Bettman has addressed those and said that his intention is to return to the ice and deliver a Stanley Cup champion when all is said and done. There have been intensifying talks in the last couple of weeks between the league and the Return to Play Committee headlined by NHLPA director Donald Fehr along with high-profile players like Connor McDavid and John Tavares. Things have started to come together recently as the league tries to steam toward getting back on the ice.
According to league sources, the NHL is nearing agreement on a 24-team playoff field with the top 12 teams in each conference getting into the chase for Lord Stanley’s chalice. Based on that premise, the top four teams in each conference would receive guaranteed spots in the normal 16-team playoff field, which teams five through 12 would match up in a play-in round, with the winners moving on to fill out the rest of the field. That would put the fifth-seeded team against the 12th-seeded team, the sixth seed against the 11th seed, the seventh seed against the 10th seed and the eighth seed squaring off with the ninth seed. The winner of the 5/12 matchup would face the fourth seed, while the 6/11 winner would face the #3 seed. Meanwhile, the 7/10 winner matches up with the #2 seed while the eighth and ninth seeds battle for the right to play the #1 overall seed.
As it stands, should this format actually take place, the play-in round would be a best of five series, which is something that the players wanted as a minimum as opposed to a best of three set. The top four teams in each conference won’t be left out of the mix though as they’ll play in a three-game tournament while the other teams are in the play-in round, which would give them a chance to have some game action in preparation for the actual playoff field. Once the play-in round completes, the regular 16-team field would compete in best of seven series in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup this season.
Under that format, the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers would earn the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh would take on Montreal in the 5/12 matchup, Carolina would battle the Rangers in the 6/11 matchup, the Islanders would clash with Florida in the 7/10 series while Toronto and Columbus would fill the 8/9 bracket. In the Western Conference, the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights and Stars would own the top four seeds and be in the 16-team field. Edmonton would lock up with Chicago in the 5/12 series, Nashville would tangle with Arizona in the 6/11 matchup, Vancouver would battle Minnesota in the 7/10 set and Calgary would lock up with Winnipeg in the 8/9 series between the teams.
Currently, the concept is that the league is going to go with two hub cities for the postseason run. Under that premise, it is assumed that Vegas and Columbus are the frontrunners for those spots. As to be expected, fans are not going to be in attendance for the games and other things still need to be worked out. The executive committee of the NHLPA are expected to meet Thursday to work out other details as the league continues to figure things out about returning to the ice.
Under the format mentioned above, you have to think about the obvious winners and losers in the system. The winners are easy as any of the teams seeded nine through 12 would be on the outside looking in for the postseason in a normal year. While at least a couple of those teams may have snuck into the playoffs had the regular season been completed, the fact remains that they wouldn’t have been in. Now they have an opportunity to wreak havoc on the postseason field by potentially upending a team that was already in the field.
On the other side, the losers are the teams seeded five through eight in this format. Instead of playing a team that they were prepared for in a seven-game set, they now have to play in a best of five against teams that wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. One has to feel especially for the Maple Leafs, who, if they get past the Blue Jackets, would have to face the Bruins in what would be the opening round. Boston has knocked Toronto out of the playoffs in seven games each of the last two seasons. In a regular format, Toronto would have had a shot at Tampa Bay in a series that would have featured two of the highest-scoring teams in the league.
How will things pan out? We’ll keep an eye out and keep you posted once more information becomes available.