If the NHL season resumes, what should the playoffs look like?


When the NHL announced that the 2019-20 season would undergo a “pause” due to the coronavirus outbreak, there was an indication that the season would resume at some point and that a 2020 Stanley Cup champion would be crowned.

As with much of the sporting world, there’s a great deal of uncertainty as to whether — and when — fans will next see an NHL game. Assuming that it will happen in the next few months, how should the playoff teams be determined, and what should the format be once the playoffs begin? Here are our takes on those questions:

How should playoff teams be determined?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The ideal scenario would be to have a set number of regular-season games for each team. There are eight teams with 71 games played, 11 teams at 70 games, 10 teams at 69 games and the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes at 68 games. Perhaps the cutoff is 71 games, so teams on the playoff bubble get a chance to squeeze in? NHL schedule-making savant Steve Hatze-Petros will have to work his magic to get the teams with games in hand to reach that number.

But if restrictions on mass gatherings are lifted in the next few months, the NHL is going to be rescheduling its games at the same time that the NBA and other arena events are doing the same thing. Plus, no one knows how many weeks the NHL will have for those games. The best remedy might be to skip right to the playoffs and seed the 16 teams via their points percentages. This isn’t fair to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets, who are in wild-card spots via points but fall short via points percentage to the Islanders and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, but no solution is going to be an equitable one under these extraordinary circumstances.

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I know the NHL wants to complete some form of the regular season for competitive fairness, but given the circumstances, common sense needs to prevail — if the NHL is able to resume at all. Going on the idea that the NHL is committed to having a normal 2020-21 schedule, there’s too much of a time crunch to have some form of a mini training camp to get players back in shape, complete the regular season and the playoffs, then give players a proper amount of offseason time before they have to report for next season.

The 2019-20 regular season is now over. The four teams currently in wild-card position are in. The four teams below them will have play-in games and enter an expanded playoff field.

Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: There’s no perfect solution that’s going to satisfy everyone. We can’t just cut it off purely by current standings because that benefits the teams that have played the most games. But we also can’t go by points percentage, as has been suggested, because that dubiously assumes that the teams with games in hand would’ve won them and caught up.

I think the most reasonable idea is having a mini play-in tournament in each conference, in which the No. 7 seed plays No. 10 and the No. 8 seed plays No. 9. Make it a best-of-three so it doesn’t hinge on one random game. The two teams that would get the short end of the stick in this scenario would be the Coyotes and the Rangers, but that’s better than the alternative. The Rangers were way ahead of schedule this season anyway, and they have plenty to look forward to heading into next season. As for the Coyotes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but the only way they keep their first-round pick is if it lands in the top three, and they’ll be heading into the lottery with Taylor Hall as their ace in the hole.

Vince Masi, ESPN Stats & Information: I am going with the presumption that time will be of the essence in order to maintain competitiveness — not only for the remainder of the 2019-20 season but also for the offseason calendar and the 2020-21 season. With that in mind, the regular season is over, and the NHL should expand a tournament for all teams that are mathematically alive for the playoffs, which means only the Red Wings would be exempt.

The top 16 teams in points percentage would be locked in regardless of conference. Teams 17-30 would play one-game playoffs at the home of the higher (better) seeds to establish a 23-team Stanley Cup playoffs field. Finally, the Nos. 1-9 seeds would each get a bye into the field of 16.

What format should be used for the playoffs?

Wyshynski: That’s entirely contingent on how much time the NHL has to complete its postseason without pushing too far into its offseason. To that end, everything should be on the table. If teams don’t hit the ice until June 1 — one NHL medical staff member told me that’s a possibility — then completing one series in a week might be a necessity.

Pushing the opening of the Stanley Cup playoffs as far as possible without canceling the season would mean three-game first-round series, three-game second-round series and, if possible, seven-game series for the final two rounds. Then every hockey fan will have to decide if they want to start screaming about “asterisks!” and “Stanley Cup playoffs in name only!” or if they’ll be happy to have some form of sports’ greatest postseason and a conclusion to the 2019-20 season.

Kaplan: As I mentioned earlier, the time crunch is real. To expect a full playoffs with seven games in each round feels aspirational. Especially if we adopt the idea of an expanded playoff field, all series should be best-of-five until the Stanley Cup Final, which could be best-of-seven.

Filipovic: This could be the NHL’s rare opportunity to get creative. Even if things go well over the next couple of months, the damage is contained, and the league is willing to go well into the summer, this postseason will be different. The most realistic outcome is that the NHL won’t be able to squeeze in four rounds of seven-game series, and teams won’t be playing them in front of arenas crammed full of people.

Let’s think outside the box. Bring all of the playoff teams to a neutral site, and have them play in a truncated tournament over the span of a month. Strip the forced geographical seedings, and rank them No. 1 through 16 based on points percentage. Have them play best-of-three series, with the final being best-of-five. If time permits, the league could even do best-of-five earlier, considering that this plan removes travel fatigue from the equation.

This is where things get particularly interesting. Because the best teams aren’t getting the luxury of home-ice advantage for their regular-season efforts, their sweetener is that they get to pick their opponents, like they did in the SPHL. Host the selections on national television prior to the event. Get people talking about the league, and try to make the most of a bad situation. Considering how many important players who were out long-term would be healthy enough to compete (such as Dougie Hamilton and Vladimir Tarasenko), the most fascinating thing from a strategic perspective would be seeing how teams recalibrate with all of those moving parts in making their decisions on whom they’d prefer to play.

Masi: The opening round involving teams 17-30 in my playoff field would be a best-of-three, with the lower seed hosting Game 1 and the higher seed hosting Games 2 and 3. Then the fields of 16 and eight would be best-of-five, and the semifinals and Stanley Cup Final would both be best-of-seven.

What is your biggest concern with a shortened season?

Wyshynski: My biggest concern is whether this is all worth attempting. Look at China. Look at Italy, if you can stomach it. The “flattening the curve” of these outbreaks takes months. The virus is not on our timeline, nor that of professional sports leagues seeking to resurrect their seasons. While it’s true that hockey leagues in Europe aren’t the $5 billion industry that the NHL is, they all made the painful economic choice to cancel their seasons while the NHL takes its pause because they didn’t see a path toward their sufficient completion, given the spread of the virus and the government restrictions on crowds. (Sweden “paused,” too, before cancelling its season on Sunday without a champion or relegation.)

If the Stanley Cup playoffs happen, I’m not concerned about the potential for injuries being higher due to players’ rushing back and playing more games in a short time. The NHLPA told me it has to sign off on any changes to the regular-season and postseason formats, and it won’t approve something too compressed. But I am concerned — and I don’t think I’m alone — that any number of businesses seeking a return to normalcy are going to end up looking like the mayor of Amity in “Jaws,” opening up the beaches before the crisis is over.

Don’t get me wrong: We all want this season to be restarted. So did fans in Sweden, Norway, Germany, Austria and the U.K., along with the ECHL, the NCAA and countless other entities. The reality is that the NHL might not be allowed to restart, per governmental restrictions, and that perhaps, in the end, the right thing to do is follow the rest of the hockey world and wait until next season.

Kaplan: Right now, my biggest concern for the NHL is the health and safety of its players, staff members and fans. Completing the season and the Stanley Cup playoffs is of utmost importance to the NHL, considering that the league doesn’t want to hurt its bottom line. Playoff revenue matters.

That said, I fear the NHL rushing into resuming the season before health experts designate it safe to do so. We’re already in a situation in which certain states — such as Illinois, where I live — are banning all mass public gatherings until May 1. That’s just a minimum; we have no idea what the landscape will look like on May 1.

Filipovic: I’m concerned they’re going to rush back before it’s safe, out of desperation to salvage the season and the money being lost during the break. The worst-case scenario would be putting people at risk needlessly, setting everything back and having to shut it all down again. That should be everyone’s biggest concern. We all need to be taking a big-picture view of the situation right now, which means that half-measure approaches simply aren’t good enough.

It’s great for people to remain optimistic and have events to look forward to, but it’s just as important that we remain pragmatic and learn from what has already happened, that we look at what’s going on around the world and listen to what the experts in the field are trying to tell us. The timeline looks like it’s most realistically going to be in the ballpark of months, rather than weeks, and that’s if we all do our part by being diligent about limiting how much we expose ourselves and those around us.

I’d love for that to wind up being an overreaction, and I’ll gladly be the first to walk it back when we’re all watching hockey again. That beats the alternative of looking back and regretting that we didn’t do enough while we still could.

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