Close your eyes and picture this: It's a relaxing, warm night in August. You just spent the day having fun in the sun, trying to soak up what's left of the summer months. Night rolls around and you and your friends get together to watch...the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
You can open your eyes now, because that may soon be your reality. The NHL season due to the global COVID-19 outbreak but the league is currently exploring options with regards to a potential return down the road. According to recent reports, there's a possibility that return could come sometime in July and feature games being played into September.
When the NHL announced it was pausing operations on March 12, the league reportedly reached out to teams about their arena building availability through July. Now, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, clubs are being asked to provide availability through August, suggesting that the league is exploring the idea of running the Stanley Cup Playoffs deep into the summer months.
It would be a bold and unprecedented decision and one that comes with plenty of questions begging to be answered.
How would the schedule work?
There's not much in the way of specifics right now but the idea might line up with a popular proposed plan from NHL players. That plan has players regrouping for a brief training camp in early July before finishing out the regular season (most teams have 10-12 games remaining) in late July. It's unknown if the league would play the full 82-game slate to completion or settle on a reduced number.
After that, the playoffs would be held in August and September, with a one-month offseason in October before the next league year begins in November. Under this format, the NHL would also need to inquire about arena availability in September, which has yet to happen as far as we know.
Here's what we know right now: With the current CDC recommendations, the earliest possible return for the league is early May but that's very optimistic considering the way things are trending with regards to the COVID-19 outbreak. In a normal playoff format, the postseason would take about three months, so if the NHL wants to stick to a traditional Stanley Cup Playoffs this year without the season carrying into September, they would need to begin the playoffs by July.
What would the playoffs look like?
Obviously, it all depends on when the NHL deems it safe and appropriate to return to action, but the league would presumably love to stick with a normal playoff format. Such a scenario sees eight teams from each conference qualify in a four-round, best-of-seven bracket. However, finishing the regular season and holding a traditional postseason might not work logistically if the league wants to wrap everything up by September. In which case, the NHL would either need to scrap a portion of -- or the entire remainder of the regular season, or they would need to find an alternative (see: shorter) playoff format.
Traditional playoff format
If the NHL is ultimately forced to forego the rest of the regular season and start the playoffs based on the current standings, it's likely that points percentage would be used to determine playoff seeding. Points percentage is the percentage of points a team has accrued in the standings based on their maximum possible point total.
Here's how the first round would be seeded based on the current standings:
- Boston Bruins (Atlantic 1) vs. New York Islanders (Wild Card 2)
- Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic 2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (Atlantic 3)
- Washington Capitals (Metro 1) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (Wild Card 1)
- Philadelphia Flyers (Metro 2) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (Metro 3)
- St. Louis Blues (Central 1) vs. Calgary Flames (Wild Card 2)
- Colorado Avalanche (Central 2) vs. Dallas Stars (Central 3)
- Vegas Golden Knights (Pacific 1) vs. Nashville Predators (Wild Card 1)
- Edmonton Oilers (Pacific 2) vs. Vancouver Canucks (Pacific 3)
Alternative playoff formats
If the league places a higher priority on finishing out what remains of the regular season, which is certainly possible from a financial standpoint, then a shorter playoff format would likely be necessary. Several possible ideas have been floated in the hockey community, including these possibilities:
- Regular four-round format/seeding with shorter series. It's been suggested the first three rounds could be best-of-five, with the Stanley Cup Final being best-of-seven.
- A three-round format, similar to what the NHL ran in its Original Six and Expansion Era days. It would basically eliminate the entire first round of the traditional format and feature four teams from each conference (the top two qualifiers from each division) in a best-of-seven all the way through.
- There's also been a bizarre wild card being thrown into play: A 24-team playoff that would feature quick eliminators and playoff rounds. This is the boldest and most drastic proposal, but it apparently has some support from inside the league -- probably because of the widened playoff revenue teams could pull in.
What are some of the complications and concerns?
Being able to enjoy hockey through the summer with an extremely short offseason in between the league years probably sounds wonderful to fans -- especially when the alternative is likely cancellation -- but such a scenario does come with elements of concern.
First and foremost, maintaining suitable ice quality during the hot summer months will be a difficult (and expensive) challenge for some teams, especially those that play warmer weather cities. The humidity level could have a negative effect on playing surfaces, which could sacrifice the quality of the product and put players more at risk for injury. That being said, it's likely that the league could make it work, though ice crews would have to be extra diligent in their preparations.
Secondly, a shortened offseason would present a difficult turnaround for many players, especially those who made deep, grueling runs in the playoffs. A typical NHL offseason lasts about three months and we often see injuries and ailments suffered during the playoffs carry into the following season. Cutting one- or two-thirds of that recovery time could have major implications for players/teams going into next season. However, the silver lining here is that players who have been battling lingering health issues during the regular season will be able to head into the playoffs with a few months of downtime.
The proposed one-month offseason from players would also put front offices in a tough spot. They would have to organize and consolidate all of their draft and free agency plans into a condensed timeline and then operate on an expedited schedule.
There are also complications when it comes to legalities. As Bob McKenzie pointed out, some NHL contracts are set to expire on June 30 of this year -- a reflection of the last day of a normal league year. If the season is extended and teams play beyond that point, those contracts will need to be amended in order for players to legally participate in-game action. Work visas would also be a point of concern for several international players.
How would it affect next season?
As much as the NHL would like to find an appropriate and satisfying resolution to this season, they also face the pressure of minimizing the current predicament's impact on next season. As previously mentioned, playing through August would cut down on the offseason and put players and executives in a more difficult position heading into next year.
If the NHL is considering the players' proposal as a legitimate possibility, the targeted November start date would bring a one-month delay to the start of next season. That would likely lead to more condensed scheduling (or perhaps a slightly extended league calendar) for 2020-21 before the league was able to return to its normal operations timeline.