What a 24-team Stanley Cup playoff format could look like, and what questions still need to be answered

While the NHL season has remained on pause since March 12 due to COVID-19, the league remains hopeful that it will be able to play this season to a conclusion. The NHL and NHLPA released a joint statement on Wednesday saying that they hope to be able to re-open team facilities and resume small group training sometime in May, realistically in the mid-to-late portion of the month.

But if the league is in fact able to return to action, we're still not quite sure what the plan will be in terms of finishing out the season. In Thursday's statement, the NHL/NHLPA said they "have not made any decisions or set a timeline for possible return to play scenarios." The league is reportedly prioritizing finishing the 82-game regular season slate or having teams play to a shortened total of games (possibly 76 or 78), which makes sense from a business standpoint considering each team has local TV and sponsorship deals to fulfill. 

But there's a chance that a time crunch or logistical headaches could force the NHL into forgoing the rest of the regular season and jumping straight into the postseason. If that's the case, the NHL will have to decide what is the fairest and most balanced way to approach seeding the playoffs. With an uneven number of games being played between teams, the league may choose to seed a traditional playoff format based on points percentage (percentage of points earned based on possible total). We've covered what that would look like, and have even run a full simulation to find a winner in such a scenario.

However, what if the NHL decides to get a little more creative and inclusive in its straight-to-postseason plan? The NHLPA is reportedly favoring a 24-team postseason model, one that would expand the playoff picture as a means of seeding and limiting the number of fringe teams that would feel robbed by an abrupt end to the regular season.

Here's what that would potentially entail, according to Sportsnet's Mark Spector:

  • Four league cities (presumably spread across the United States and Canada) would host division-based playoff "tournaments"
  • Each of the league's four divisions would be assigned a city (or hub), with the top six teams from each division qualifying for the postseason and reporting to their respective hub
  • Each division's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds would play each other (best-of-three series) to decide a division winner
  • Each division's No. 3 seed would play the No. 6 seed, while the No. 4 would face No. 5 in a best-of-three for the right to keep playing
  • That would leave four remaining playoff qualifiers from each division (16 total playoff teams) and a seeding structure to play a more traditional Stanley Cup playoff tournament

About a dozen teams/cities are reportedly bidding on the opportunity to act as a hub in this scenario but let's highlight four reported bidders for the sake of this exercise: Edmonton (Pacific), St. Paul (Central), Raleigh (Metropolitan) and Tampa (Atlantic). Here's what the playoff scenarios would look like:

Atlantic (Tampa)

  1. Boston Bruins (.714 points percentage)
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning (.657)
  3. Toronto Maple Leafs (.579)
  4. Florida Panthers (.565)
  5. Montreal Canadiens (.500)
  6. Buffalo Sabres (.493)

Eliminated: Ottawa Senators (.437), Detroit Red Wings (.275)

Best-of-three matchups:

  • Bruins vs. Lightning (division title)
  • Maple Leafs vs. Sabres (elimination series)
  • Panthers vs. Canadiens (elimination series)

Metropolitan (Raleigh)

  1. Washington Capitals (.652)
  2. Philadelphia Flyers (.645)
  3. Pittsburgh Penguins (.623)
  4. Carolina Hurricanes (.596)
  5. New York Islanders (.588)
  6. Columbus Blue Jackets (.579)

Eliminated: New York Rangers (.521), New Jersey Devils (.493)

Best-of-three matchups: 

  • Capitals vs. Flyers (division title) 
  • Penguins vs. Blue Jackets (elimination series)
  • Hurricanes vs. Islanders (elimination series)

Central (St. Paul)

  1. St. Louis Blues (.662)
  2. Colorado Avalanche (.657)
  3. Dallas Stars (.594)
  4. Nashville Predators (.565)
  5. Winnipeg Jets (.563)
  6. Minnesota Wild (.558)

Eliminated: Chicago Blackhawks (.514)

Best-of-three matchups:  

  • Blues vs. Avalanche (division title)
  • Stars vs. Wild (elimination series)
  • Predators vs. Jets (elimination series)

Pacific (Edmonton)

  1. Vegas Golden Knights (.606)
  2. Edmonton Oilers (.585)
  3. Vancouver Canucks (.565)
  4. Calgary Flames (.564)
  5. Arizona Coyotes (.529)
  6. Anaheim Ducks (.472)

Eliminated: Los Angeles Kings (.457), San Jose Sharks (.450)

Best-of-three matchups:  

  • Golden Knights vs. Oilers (division title)
  • Canucks vs. Ducks (elimination series)
  • Flames vs. Coyotes (elimination series)

At the conclusion of this format, there would be four teams remaining in each division (including a division champion) and a clean eight teams per conference. With the seeding structure established by these mini-tournaments, the NHL would then be able to seed a more traditional Stanley Cup playoffs bracket, swapping out the two "wild card" teams per conference with lowest-seeded surviving teams from each division. 

From there, there are still questions that surround the "traditional" bracket portion. Will series remain best-of-seven? Will all games be played in one neutral location? Will lower-seeded teams have to travel to the hub of a higher-seeded opponent in another division? Those are things that still need to be answered.

Pete Blackburn is from Boston, so there's a good chance you don't like him already. He has been a writer at CBS Sports since 2017 and usually aims to take a humorous and light-hearted approach to the often... Full Bio

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