Winners and Losers of the NHL Return to Play Concept
The NHL officially announced their return to play format should they be able to get the season off the ground this summer. As it stands, the league has been on pause since March 12 and recently announced that they would be entering Phase 2 of their return to play initiative. The NHL has cast aside the rest of the regular season schedule, planning instead on moving into a 24-team playoff format with the top 12 teams from each conference into the postseason.
The top four teams in each conference earn byes and will square off with one another in a round-robin tournament. While it’s unclear if that will have any effect on the seeding, they’ll at least get some action in before taking the ice in a meaningful game. For teams seeded fifth through 12th, they’ll square off in best-of-five play-in rounds with the winners advancing to the regular playoff field. Those series will all be best-of-seven series until an eventual champion be crowned. So who are the winners and losers in this potential format? Let’s take a deeper look at the situation and how it can affect teams.
Teams That Wouldn’t Be in the Field: This one is pretty obvious when you get down to it. With a 24-team field, you have eight teams that wouldn’t be in the postseason under normal circumstances taking part in the playoffs this year. That means the Islanders, Rangers, Panthers and Canadiens in the Eastern Conference, along with the Canucks, Wild, Coyotes and Blackhawks get a chance to really upset the apple cart by beating an actual team that would be in the field normally in a short series. Fans of those teams aren’t complaining about having a chance to make a move in the postseason by any stretch of the imagination.
TV: Let’s face it: the league needs to have games on TV, both to satisfy contract requirements but also because a big chunk of revenue can come from those contests via media money. Having more teams means more games, which means that they can help alleviate some of the numbers that they would have to offset with make-good circumstances next year. Given that there is still a void in the sports world as far as live events in North America goes, you’d have to think that ratings numbers would be up, helping everyone in the grand scheme of things.
Teams With Injuries: Teams that were going to head into the postseason missing key players due to injuries catch a massive break in this format. That gives Toronto a chance to have guys like Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott and Morgan Rielly back on their blueline. Tampa Bay would have Steven Stamkos back. Columbus could have half their roster back in the mix, including defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, among other guys, for the postseason. Basically, the break made it a more even field for the playoffs with teams being closer to full strength than they would have been at the end of the regular season.
Teams that Lost Their Playoff Spot: Under the original format, the playoffs would be six teams from each division. That would have cut down on potential hub issues should the league stick to a four-hub format for the postseason, at least to start. Under that premise, Buffalo would have been the final team from the Atlantic Division and Anaheim would have been the final representative in the Pacific Division. Instead, the league moved to bring in the top teams by points, which left them on the cutting room floor while giving the Rangers and Blackhawks, a pair of Original Six teams, new life, even if it is temporarily.
The Seven Teams on the Outside: While it’s clear that some of the teams in the lottery, like the Red Wings, who are 23 points worse than anyone else in the league, were going nowhere, there were teams working on getting their young talent adjusted to the NHL level. As it stands, not only will those teams not make the playoffs (which is totally fine when you get right down to it), they won’t be taking the ice for the rest of the season. That means by the time they take the ice for training camp or an actual game again, we could be seven, eight, nine months or more down the road from their last game. Some of the guys you saw on your favorite doormat could be in a different uniform the next time they take the ice.
Casual Bettors: Too Crowded a Field: If you’re not someone that watches hockey often as opposed to someone that just likes to watch sports or a sharp and you’re looking to lay down some bucks, the short series and extended field makes things tough. If you’re not betting at all or if you’re well-versed in seeing how teams play, this isn’t a major factor for you. However, if you’re tentatively stepping into the water and looking to make a couple of bets to test the waters, this kind of field is daunting. It makes for a lot of uncertainty as to who to lean on, who might be primed to pull out a victory in the early rounds or who could be hoisting Lord Stanley’s chalice when all is said and done.
Top-Seeded Teams: Take note there are a couple of caveats to this situation. This is based on the fact that, as it stands, the field is not going to be reseeded after each round. That means if Boston maintains the top seed when the Eastern Conference playoffs continue, they would face the winner of the Maple Leafs/Blue Jackets series in the 8/9 matchup. Now, that might not seem as big a factor but think about this: say Montreal wins their first-round matchup over Pittsburgh as a 12 seed. That means, instead of Boston facing them in the next round, they would play whoever the fourth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. It’s not exactly the best deal for a top seed to see a lesser team get an upset winner in the next round.
Carolina Hurricanes: Perhaps the biggest loser in this format is Carolina. The Hurricanes held the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and while that would put them in a first-round matchup with Metropolitan Division winner Washington more than likely, they liked their chances against the Capitals. Instead, now, the Hurricanes will face the Rangers, a team that beat them four straight times in the regular season and outscored them 17-9 in those contests. Carolina will have to overcome that if they want to make it out of the play-in round.