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Rink Roundtable: A Playoff Proposal on the Table

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We weigh in on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff plan currently under review by the NHLPA.

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Last week, the NHLPA’s executive board - consisting of one representative from each of the 31 teams - voted on a 24-team return-to-play proposal.

From ESPN:

Under the plan, the top four seeds in each conference, as determined by their standings points percentage when the regular season was paused on March 12, would receive byes through a round of best-of-five play-in series featuring seeds 5 through 12. Those play-in series would determine which teams advance to a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket, which would have seven-game series.

So this is what’s on the table. Thoughts?

Adam: I’m ready for hockey to be back as long as it’s safe for all parties. That being said, I’m not thrilled that 77% of the League looks primed to make the playoffs. The NHL’s obsession with parity, and the revenue that tight playoff races generate, has already led hockey to have one of the least meaningful regular seasons in professional sports. Any increase to the number of teams that make the playoffs further devalues the regular season. So while I don’t love the idea of a 24 team playoffs, I understand that it might be necessary this year. Hopefully the NHL and NHLPA can find a safe way to get us all back to watching our favorite sport.

The Peerless: Just some random thoughts. First, this remains a plan in progress – dates, formats, sites, etc. – so it is hard to comment on specifics. With respect to the format I have seen, a 24-team tournament with a 16-team “play-in” round, I can’t help but think that what drives this is not competitiveness or inclusiveness as much as it is economic factors. I get it, the NHL has lost a substantial amount of revenue, and this is a money-making endeavor, even from the union perspective. Still, if you look at the standings with barely a dozen regular season games left, some of the teams that will be included in the tournament as currently configured suggest a certain amount of media/ratings influence.

The New York Islanders and New York Rangers are one and two points, respectively, out of the current playoff mix in the East under normal rules. The Montreal Canadiens are ten points out, but this is the league’s flagship franchise with respect to history. In the West, Vancouver (a significant Canadian market) is a tie-breaker out of the playoff mix, but Chicago is six points out with a dozen games on their remaining regular season schedule. It would be hard to imagine the Blackhawks being able to make up that gap and jump over four teams to reach the postseason under a normal set of circumstances.

Second, the expanded tournament, coupled with the seeding rules, there are marketing benefits with respect to opening round matchups. There is what could be Henrik Lundqvist’s last stand in the New York Ranger net against a team (Carolina) that he has never faced in the playoffs, but one he has dominated otherwise in his career (33-12-1, 2.00, .934, two shutouts). As pointed out in The Athletic, this might be the only team Lundqvist might be expected to face in the playoffs. There are the two coaches who won Stanley Cups with other teams (Joel Quenneville in Chicago, Barry Trotz in Washington) facing one another in the first round. There is the most successful team in NHL history (Montreal) against arguably the best team in recent memory (Pittsburgh). There is another club that could make an argument as best of the recent era (Chicago) against a team that could be starting its own run of postseason success after a long drought (Edmonton). These matchups do not happen without the 24-team format.

Third, the format impresses me as the easy part. Fans want hockey, even if it is in a different playoff format than what they are used to. They haven’t pushed back much on the league cycling through All-Star Game formats; I don’t see an argument that most fans would regard this solution as illegitimate. Players want to compete. There are no asterisks on the Cup for teams or players. The hard part is the logistical side: where (hubs?), visas, health care protocols, lodging for players in hub cities, backup plans for those jurisdictions that have restrictions remaining in place (or reinstated) for large gatherings such as sporting events, a “mini-training camp” to get players back in shape after such a long hiatus. And, what of the effects on opening next season? How will that schedule be affected? If this season cannot be resumed, I suspect it is going to be here, among the many interlocking moving parts behind the scenes, where it will fail.

Alex: I don’t have too many qualms with this 24-team structure. I think, like Peerless said, that part of the reasoning for building a 16-team play-in round is certainly economic/revenue-driven. So many of the “bubble” teams that would suddenly be playoff-bound (Islanders, Ranger, Canadians, Blackhawks) are teams with huge market value. That feels hard to ignore as a reason. My biggest question mark in regards to the proposed format itself is the top four teams in each conference playing for seeding. I understand that players aren’t interested in having a first round bye, so why not schedule extra practices instead of forcing the top teams in the league to risk injury or forfeiting the top seeding they fought so hard for in the regular season?

The part of this plan that concerns me the most is actually not the format, but the idea of returning to play in general. I know that, even though the NHLPA executive board voted in favor of the plan, so many details still need to be ironed out before anything can be put into motion. However, all of those logistics are so incredibly complicated and I am personally of the belief that hockey, or any other professional sports for that matter, cannot yet resume safely. Forget the scheduling aspect, because that alone is a huge headache when taking things like “mini training camps” and the start of next season into account. How are teams, coaches, staff, arena employees, and media supposed to do their jobs safely right now? Hockey games, even without an arena full of fans, take an army of people to execute and would almost certainly violate restrictions on large gatherings. How would quarantine for those hundreds of people be organized, managed, and contained? Several players have already expressed concern about their families in regards to both unknowingly passing along the virus and being isolated from family because of the two-city hub proposal. Hurdles are obviously expected in a situation like this, but I think there are simply too many dangerous hoops to jump through.

Of course I want hockey to come back as much as the next person. And players want to get back to playing the game they love. I just don’t see it happening safely for a while, and that should be the most important thing.

Luke: I’m in the “just cancel the season” party. Maybe start it up late August or Early September and just have a long season, stretching it out with no back to backs. But it’s hard not to be excited about seeing some hockey in the summer, the most boring time of the year. But as others have pointed out it needs to have everyone’s safety in mind; all it takes for one player to get the virus and the season ends.

There’s also going to be some edges given to teams playing the round-robin series to determine who moves on. Yes, they could get booted early but they also get to have their legs under them going into the next round against a team that hasn’t played meaningful hockey longer than them. The Capitals are in the latter party, as it looks like they’ll wait to see who their opponents are. They have never been a team good out of the gate of breaks and such.

To follow up that point, Braden Holtby’s worst month has always been October (.907sv%). If we are treating this hiatus as essentially a summer break and we’re going into “October” it won’t be a good matchup: Holtby vs a team that already has their legs. The Capitals will need to be really cautious yet also ready to throw down very, very quickly. It certainly doesn’t bode well for them.

Becca: Honestly, my biggest concern is how any of these things happen while keeping not just the players but their families, the team staff and any necessary arena workers safe. It seems implausible that it can be done, even with the frequent testing and other so-called health protocols the League is recommending in the full outline released yesterday. There doesn’t seem to be a sufficient plan in place for what happens if one or more tests come back positive — and it just feels unlikely that it won’t come up at some point.

As Alex said, we all want hockey to come back, but only if it can do so while ensuring the safety of all involved.

So that’s the pragmatic, not-fun non-answer. The solely hockey-centric answer is that this proposal, as others have noted, feels a bit cash-grabby and somewhat unfair to a number of parties.

As one of the top seeds in the conference, the Caps would have a slight advantage in that they avoid having to face a bubble team in the first “round” and potentially have their postseason derailed by a team that shouldn’t be there in the first place. (Although of course that could still happen in the next round.) But the structure of it punishes some teams that deserve a better fate based on their performance. Far be it from me to stick up for the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Carolina Hurricanes, but their matchups in particular seem to be skewed against them while facing teams who, particularly in the case of Montreal, are well off the wild card bubble.

And while I’ve seen plenty of people say that there wouldn’t be an asterisk on whoever eventually wins the Cup, it’s hard to imagine there not being one in everyone’s mind. This just isn’t a format that rewards teams who might otherwise deserve it.

Unless of course the Caps were to win it all... then asterisk be damned.

J.P.: I have serious concerns about how they think they’re actually going to be able to safely pull off this whole tournament and am unsure why the players would want anything to do with it right now (I mean, I know why), but I’ll stick to the substance here on the format, and, well... I don’t love it.

For a league that already has a relatively devalued regular season in which more than half of the member franchises make the postseason each year, you’re now going to bump that up to more than three-quarters? For what, “fairness” (I mean, again, I know why)? But what about that is fair to the teams that proved themselves over the first 70 games of the season? Why does Boston have to re-prove itself with the “top-four round robin” or whatever exhibition games to establish seeding, then face a team that just played meaningful life-or-death hockey? What happens if a random goalie gets hot in the play-in tournament (which, technically, isn’t “the playoffs”?) and beats a team that deserved to be there? And why are some players going to risk an awful lot to come back and train, all to play, what, a couple of games?

So much of this proposal has the feeling of “saying hockey’s quiet parts out loud,” whether intentional or not: the regular season is pretty meaningless and the sport itself isn’t necessarily conducive to producing a champion that is the League’s best team. Hell, why stop at 24 teams at this point? And whomever wins the Cup this year will spend a lifetime with dealing with naysayers belittling their accomplishment (and rightly so, to an extent - this won’t be a “real” Cup win to many fans or players).

As a Caps fan, I’d certainly take another championship this year, but I sure would be glad it wasn’t the team’s first (fun thought experiment - if your favorite team had never won a Cup before, would you want them to win one this way?).

I miss hockey as much as the next guy or gal, but I’m not sure why this deeply flawed format is the only option for it (I mean… I do know why). Then again, if ever there was a time to experiment, this is it (don’t think for a second that this format, if wildly successful, won’t be on the table for a future playoff structure), so why not go bigger and bolder - let the top seeds choose their opponents after the play-in round, or maybe even draft teams for their preferred play-in match-ups. That sure would fire up the drama… certainly moreso than this imperfect tournament will on its own.

You’ve heard from us - now tell us what you think in the comments below!