The picture of what the NHL will look like when it returns to play has just been painted a little clearer.
On Friday night, the NHL Player’s Association (NHLPA) approved “further negotiations” with the NHL Board of Governors on the league’s proposed 24-team return to play format, releasing the following statement:
Both sides of the party have admitted there is still work that needs to be done and further negotiations to be made, but this is the first major step the NHL has taken to secure a return for hockey.
As seen in the image below, the approved proposal will see the top four teams from each conference clinch the playoffs. The remaining 16 teams will play a best-of-five play-in series against another team from their conference according to where they currently sit in the standings, and while the play-in rounds are happening, the top four teams in each conference will play each other in a round-robin type format in which the team with the best record in each round robin will then get the #1 seed, the second best record will get the #2 seed, and so on. The winners of each of the play-in series will fill the vacant eight positions needed to have the regular 16 team Stanley Cup Playoffs format. The bottom seven teams in the league will see their seasons come to an end.
The format is something unique that we have not seen before and definitely has its pros and cons. There has been arguments made that the format is not fair for the top-seeded teams in each conference, who may see a tougher first round opponent due to how the seeding works. For example, the Boston Bruins are currently the top seeded team in the Eastern Conference. Let’s say Boston goes 1-2 in its respective round robin, in which they would play the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. A 1-2 finish would almost certainly mean third place in the round robin, so Boston would then move from the #1 seed to the #3 seed.
With Boston holding the #3 seed now, this would see them play the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes & New York Rangers series. If the Hurricanes were to win, Boston would take on a very skilled Hurricanes team in the first round, whereas if the whole season had played out the Bruins most certainly would have got a “lower-caliber” opponent in the first round.
But this situation could also take another path. Let’s say the Rangers upset the Hurricanes in their play-in round. The Bruins would then play the Rangers in the first round, a team that probably would not have made playoffs if the season played the full 82 games. The Bruins could also benefit from this, getting a “lower-caliber” opponent in the first round.
Personally, I’m all for this format. I think it’s a very unique, interesting way to make up for the lost final month of the regular season. The format gives teams that were on the playoff bubble at shutdown a fair chance to earn their spot in the playoffs. I also love a good underdog story, so seeing someone like #12 Montreal knock off #5 Pittsburgh in the play-in round, or #12 Chicago beat #5 Edmonton would definitely be intriguing to say the least.
If we break down this format further, the four teams from the East that automatically qualify for playoffs are the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers. The four teams from the West are the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights. The seven teams that finished #25 to #31 in the league according to current standings, and whose seasons are over, are the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks, and Detroit Red Wings. The remaining 16 teams will all play in the play-in rounds to determine the final eight spots in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
An interesting fact to note here is that for the first time since the 1995-96 NHL season, all three California teams will not qualify for playoffs. It also marks the ninth straight year the Buffalo Sabres will not compete in the postseason, the longest playoff drought in the NHL.
Although the approval is a promising step in the right direction, there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out. The NHL still needs to work out key elements such as testing protocols, border restrictions, and whether or not the league will decide the resume play in different hub cities around North America.
One thing is for sure though. Hockey will be back. And I can’t wait.
Featured photo courtesy of NHL.com
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