Watch Now: Storylines Heading Into The NHL Playoffs: Unprecedented Postseason Scenario (1:30)

The NHL is the first of the four major North American sports leagues to come to an official agreement for a return to action plan post-coronavirus outbreak, though it'll still likely be a couple more months until we actually see meaningful games. If/when the NHL does return, it has been agreed that they'll jump straight into an expanded 24-team playoff format. We may have to wait until August to see that get underway, but it's not too early to start looking into and discussing some of the storylines that will come with the 2020 postseason.

From the league level, the team level and individual player level, there will be no shortage of things to monitor this playoff season. Let's take a look at six things we're thinking about already:

St. Louis Blues v Vegas Golden Knights
Getty Images

A hard reset for all teams, for better or for worse

When the NHL does kick off its postseason, it will likely be at least four months removed from the meaningful games last played in March. Such a long layoff will essentially provide a hard reset for each of the league's 24 still-active teams, which could be considered a positive or a negative depending on how a certain team was performing going into the pause.

Take, for example, the Boston Bruins. At the pause, they were one of the league's hottest teams, having won 16 of their previous 20 games. They were atop the league standings, at least eight points clear of every other team in the Eastern Conference with 12 games left to play. Now, not only did Boston have that momentum halted by the pause, it also loses out on home ice due to games being played at a neutral location. And the Bruins may not even have a top seed (thanks to the round-robin format) despite the fact that they finished the season as Presidents' Trophy winners. It's a strange turn of events. 

Other teams that could look at the league shutdown as a negative: The Vegas Golden Knights, who were one of the most dominant teams in the West before the pause, winning 14 of 19, and the Philadelphia Flyers, who had a nine-game winning streak before losing their last game before the shutdown. Philly surged up the standings and was just one point off the Metro lead when the league shut down. 

For other teams, an opportunity for a hard reset and expanded playoff picture isn't a bad thing when you're trending in the wrong direction late in the season. The Dallas Stars were pushing for the Central crown but saw the wheels come loose when they lost their final six games of the regular season. Under a traditional playoff format, teams like the New York Islanders (losers of seven in a row before the pause) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (losers of 12 of 15) would have been in trouble of falling out of the postseason picture down the stretch. Not only will they hold a postseason spot thanks to the altered 24-team format, but the hiatus will give them an opportunity to stop their downward spiral, re-calibrate and start fresh again this summer. 

With momentum and a majority of injuries wiped off the table, all 24 teams in the playoff picture will have an opportunity to enter the gauntlet with somewhat even footing. 

garybettmantattoo.jpg
USATSI

Navigating an unprecedented postseason scenario

On top of the hiatus giving teams a clean slate heading into the restart, there will also be plenty of other unique factors to monitor in this unprecedented playoff scenario. First and foremost: the health and safety of all the players involved. Obviously, COVID-19 will be a central storyline of this postseason.

The NHL is committing to testing players on a daily basis during the playoffs. It'll be important to know what the contingency plans are in the event that a player (or essential personnel member) tests positive for the coronavirus. Then, there's the playoff format itself. The playoff picture will be expanded from 16 teams to 24 teams with an additional best-of-five play-in round ahead of the traditional 16-team bracket.

There's always a significant unpredictability factor when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Last year, every wild-card team pulled an upset and advanced out of the first round -- and that's part of what makes playoff hockey so great. But a best-of-five series following a four-month layoff? That seems like it could be a recipe for randomness, and it might open up questions and debate over maximizing legitimacy and opportunity for the best team to win. If a team is slow to find its legs out of the gate or gets a few bad bounces in the first couple of games, it could have its back up against the wall almost immediately. Is that a good thing for the sport and the greater playoff picture?

You also have to consider the fact that there will be no real "home-ice advantage" during these playoffs, either. Games will be played at central hubs and without fans in attendance, and that alone will be worth keeping tabs on. Crowd atmosphere typically has a strong presence in the Stanley Cup playoffs, so how will the absence of fans affect the energy level of players or momentum of games, as well as the viewing experience for fans? 

This Stanley Cup playoffs will also likely be played in the dead heat of the summer, so ice conditions could also become a storyline if the heat/humidity ultimately has an effect on the quality of playing surface in whichever hub cities are chosen. Of course, all of the bizarre and unprecedented elements of this postseason will ultimately play into whether the Stanley Cup champion crowned at the conclusion of the playoffs is considered "legitimate" or not. Thanks to the odd circumstances that have been cast upon the league, it seems inevitable that many will be quick to attach an asterisk to whoever lifts the Cup.

Edmonton Oilers v Toronto Maple Leafs
USATSI

Connor McDavid, Oilers back in the playoffs

For the first time in three seasons, the best hockey player in the world will be involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It has been frustrating to watch the Oilers waste prime years of Connor McDavid's career, but Edmonton is back in the postseason picture this year and the Oilers will square up with the Blackhawks in a play-in matchup. 

The Oilers made an exciting run during McDavid's second season, advancing to the second round before being eliminated by the Ducks in seven games, and it looked like the franchise was trending upward with McDavid leading the way. But they've taken a step back since and McDavid has clearly been frustrated by the lack of progress and forward momentum as he carries dead weight.

However, this year's postseason, as strange and unprecedented as it may be, offers an opportunity for the Oilers to get back on track. And perhaps more importantly, it puts McDavid back on the biggest stage. Having the world's most skilled and impressive players on display to represent the league's product during the postseason is always pretty important, but it may be even more significant this year. Who knows how many sports leagues will be back in action by the time the NHL kicks off its postseason this summer? The NHL could find increased viewership and interest from peripheral fans. It's probably for the best that a guy who's capable of turning himself into a human highlight reel on a nightly basis is involved.

Make or break time for Maple Leafs?

Despite coming into the season with lofty expectations, the Maple Leafs had a tumultuous and frustrating campaign. They struggled with inconsistency and continue to have trouble in their own end of the ice. But this hiatus gives the Leafs a chance to start fresh with a playoff run, one that could have major implications on how they approach the coming offseason. 

The Leafs are tight against the cap and have over $40 million tied up in four key forwards that comprise their core group: John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. That group hasn't been able to elevate Toronto to the heights that are expected of them. The Maple Leafs have lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and the franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 2004. 

They were still fighting for their playoff lives when the season went into shutdown, and when it returns they'll have a play-in date with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nobody really expected the Blue Jackets to be in the playoff picture this year, but they've proven to be a scrappy team and are due to get back a number of key players from injury thanks to the layoff. Columbus proved last year it shouldn't be taken lightly, even if it is seemingly overmatched in a postseason series. Toronto looking better on paper shouldn't mean a whole lot. 

If Toronto can't get beat Columbus, or if it can't move beyond the first round of the traditional 16-team bracket, then perhaps Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs front office decides it's time to make a significant shakeup to that core this offseason. It's hard to justify having that much money tied up in a few players that have helped the team accomplish very little, especially when the squad still has glaring holes (primarily on defense) and the salary cap parameters might be tightened as a result of the loss of revenue that has come with the pandemic.

Toronto may not necessarily "blow it up" if it has another disappointing playoff showing, but it'd be hard to argue staying the course if no progress is shown.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at New York Rangers
Sarah Stier / USA TODAY Sports

New York Rangers' goaltending situation

The Rangers will have an interesting decision to make in net when it comes time for them to take the ice for their play-in series against the Carolina Hurricanes. They have three goalies on the roster that all have a decent case for the starting job:

  • Henrik Lundqvist: He has been the face of the franchise for years and has proven himself to be a great playoff goalie, despite the fact that he hasn't been on a Cup-winning team yet. Over 11 playoff runs, Lundqvist has a .922 save percentage, putting him in top 15 all time. But he's not the goalie he once was and he had a mediocre regular season, posting a .909 save percentage and saving negative-4.16 goals above average over 30 appearances. 
  • Alexandar Georgiev: Coming in as Hank's young backup, Georgiev took on a more prominent role in net this season. The 24-year-old put up better numbers than Lundqvist but still wasn't anything special, recording a .910 save percentage with 0.12 goals saved above average in 34 games played. 
  • Igor Shesterkin: The Russian 24-year-old is considered to be the Rangers' goalie of the future and he's made a great first impression in New York during his rookie campaign. He has a very limited sample size with 12 appearances, but he's posted a .932 save percentage with an impressive 9.34 goals saved above average in that span.

So, who do the Rangers go with? Maybe they show some loyalty and give Lundqvist one more crack at carrying a playoff run. Maybe Georgiev's larger body of work inspires more faith. Maybe they decide that they're ready to make a strong commitment to Shesterkin and hand him the keys as the goalie of the future.

It's not an easy call and the decision will likely be the subject of debate and scrutiny, but ultimately it's not the worst position to be in. All three of the Rangers' goalies are likely better options than what the Carolina Hurricanes are going to have in net for their play-in series. 

Will the Blackhawks save Stan Bowman?

Under normal circumstances, the Chicago Blackhawks were likely to miss a third straight postseason. That likely would have cost Stan Bowman his job as general manager as the team already fired team president John McDonaugh earlier this year, saying "it will take a new mindset to successfully transition the organization to win both on and off the ice." You'd imagine that line of thinking should also apply to Bowman.

There have been rumblings that Bowman will be next on the chopping block, but what if the Blackhawks scrape together an improbable run this postseason? Does it get overlooked that they entered an unusual and unprecedented postseason picture as the 23rd of 24 seeds? Will it buy him some more time in the GM chair, or has his fate already been sealed regardless of what happens?

Chicago awaits a play-in series against the Oilers and there could be a whole lot on the line for Bowman and his future with the club.