Well, that was a lot. Gary Bettman just went on television and stated the NHL’s comprehensive return to play plan. There was some good, some bad, and some unknown. All in all, it’s a step in the right direction, one of many that need to be taken, and it’s definitely a positive. Let’s dive in.
Top 4 team Round Robin: The top 4 teams in each conference will get a bye through the play-in round. Instead, they will play a 3 game round-robin in which each of the four teams play each other once to determine seeding 1 through 4, with the tiebreaker being regular season points percentage. The Bruins finished 8 points ahead of any other team in the east, yet they could finish lower than the 1 seed. Bettman explained this theory as giving those four teams some meaningful games to play before the actual round of 16 Stanley Cup playoffs. However, it doesn’t sit well with me, especially as a Bruins fan, that the team that was in first place by such a great margin through 70 regular season games will all of a sudden have to fight for the number 1 seed again with 3 teams they finished 8, 10, and 11 points ahead of respectively. It makes those 70 games of hockey mean nothing but a tiebreaker.
Potential 5 game series: One of the things stated that the players are still debating is whether the first (16 remaining teams) and second (8 remaining teams) rounds of the playoffs will be 5 or 7 game series. This is bad, and the type of thing that would compromise the integrity of the 2020 Stanley Cup. There is no issue with the play-in series being best of 5, but the actual Stanley Cup Playoffs, stated as the hardest playoffs to win, being shorted to save maybe a week of games seems unnecessary and drastic. Instead of 16 wins to win the cup, now it’s 14. That’s the type of thing that could call for an asterisk.
Playoff Locks playing for their lives: This is one of those things that has to be compromised in these times, but some teams are really getting screwed here. According to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn Pittsburgh had a 99% chance of making the playoffs, but now have to face Montreal for their lives in a best of 5. Edmonton was at 94%, Toronto 86%, and Carolina at 80% to make it, and now have to fight for their lives. Nothing is going to be perfect, and this was unavoidable, but it’s unfortunate for those teams.
Simplicity: I did not understand a single thing about the draft lottery so please do not ask.
Taking a step: For the first time in what seems like forever, the NHL seems to have it together better than any other league. The MLB is a disaster. The NFL is more in wait-and-see mode, and the NBA seems to be a step behind the NHL. Nobody knows for certain if they’re going to be able to finish the season or not, but the preparation and determination they’ve shown thus far has been keeping the hockey world optimistic. They’re the first league to announce an actual format and are hoping to take the step to get players on the ice next week. Despite some details to complain about, they’re mostly negligible on a bigger scale. This is the biggest thing, and why this announcement from the NHL is a big positive on the whole. Bettman saying they’re willing to delay the start of 2021 into the beginning of January shows the determination they’re showing to finish this thing.
Play-in series: Some teams are getting screwed and others don’t deserve to be there, but the general concept of 5 games series for bubble teams to make the playoffs makes sense. It gives teams that may have made the playoffs if 12 more games had been played a chance, and vice versa. The concept makes sense despite some teams benefit and others not.
Hub Cities: As far as quarantining goes, hub cities make the most sense, and Las Vegas as one of the likely spots makes even more sense with the amount of hotel space they have. Doing two cities as opposed to four also seems to make more sense. It limits travel and allows cross-division play. The health and testing plan is still in the works (the only thing we got was a bullet point that said “comprehensive testing”), but keeping all the players in a bubble is definitely the best course of action.
The Phases: Phase 2, where players can informally skate in small groups at team facilities, is hoping to be initiated in the next week or two. Players are to be tested twice a week and report temperature and symptoms on a daily basis (self-report, but nonetheless). That is another big step in the right direction. Bettman stated that Phase 3, full training camps, won’t start until “the first half of July”. Doing the math, Phase 4, or actually starting games would seem to be a goal for late July to early August, which Bettman said would be conceivable for a start time, but if they have to push it back further they will. This would stretch the playoffs seemingly into early-mid October, with a start time for the 2021 season in mind for December. Though no dates are set, this timeline makes sense, and gives the league plenty of time to work on health and safety protocols and observe the evolving situation in the world, and the two hub cities they end up choosing.
Summer Hockey: Imagine when we get to go to the beach and then come back and watch playoff hockey? That is living the dream. Hopefully, it can come to fruition.
Overall, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and it seems like there’s an ever-improving chance we see the Stanley Cup awarded in 2020. Let’s do it.
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