The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted not just the hockey world or the sports world, but society at large. Honestly, in a time like this, it can feel a little silly to even be talking about the sport when we have a much more important matchup on our hands, and so many people to still convince on the whole “working as a team” thing.
But, at the same time, being holed up leaves a lot of idle thought; especially if you’re someone like me who’s workflow is at the mercy of the hockey schedule. You can only do so much housekeeping, handwashing, and video game run-throughs before thinking about the game that’s run your life since your childhood once again.
So I expect over the next little bit, to write a couple of stray thoughts on here. A little more conversational and brief than the detailed long-forms that show typically show up, but also a little more frequent. Today, let’s quickly talk about the playoffs.
Firstly, I think that if you’re holding out hope for any leagues that aren’t at the top of the totem pole to come back, I’d probably let it go. European leagues have by and large pulled their plugs, most of the minor hockey loop has done the same in Canada, the ECHL has done similar, and realistically, we’re holding out on a global scale for the KHL, AHL, and CHL. They have the best chance of the non-NHL leagues of being able to come back with minimal financial and logistical hurdles, but I still don’t like any of their chances.
However, unless we really, really drop the ball on this pandemic – admittedly not an impossibility given the number of people unwilling to follow basic precautions out of selfishness and/or spite – the NHL (and across the sports world, the NBA), will find a way to come back from this. There’s money to be made, public morale to boost (and turn into money), and the NHL would also probably like to avoid two blank spaces on the Stanley Cup in the span of 15 years.
Realistically, though, the regular season is over. I can’t see us being back to normal in the next few weeks, and I’d imagine the NHL would like to offer some sort of offseason to these players still. We will likely go straight into the playoffs, all things considered.
But how do you do that fairly? Some would argue to cut off the standings as they were now and just run them accordingly – but that would be unfair to teams with games in hand. Others might argue to use points percentage, but that’s still denying a lot of teams that had momentum time to claw back into the standings. Three teams in the Eastern Conference are within three points of leapfrogging the last wildcard spot right now. In the west, three are within four points, and two within one.
Maybe what’s fair doesn’t matter here, and we should worry a bit less about fairness from a format perspective. One way to do that would be saying “tough shit” and just going with the current group, but you could also go the other route and blow this wide open and adding more teams. Maybe.. every team.
Sports are a unifying gathering point in our culture, perhaps to a fault. When we get through to the other side of this pandemic, we’re going to need things in this world that remind us that life can go on and that things are going to be “okay” again, something that these games we love have done symbolically throughout their history. I think it’s very important for these teams, once it’s safe to, to unite their local communities again after a rough patch of isolation.
So to the format idea
The idea here would be to run a full bracket of five rounds – a play-in round which you could do best of 3, 5, or 7 (I’m leaning 5, as a balance of brevity and guaranteed home games – more on why 3 doesn’t give that shortly). Followed by the standard four games.
The divisions being segmented into groups of 8 makes this very simple, with the obvious caveat that the Central Division has 7 teams and the NHL has 31 teams. Thankfully, the defending Stanley Cup Champions are 1st in the Central Division, which makes it very easy for me to say that the simple solution here would be to give the St. Louis Blues a bye from the Play-In Round.
The disadvantage for them would be a lack of being up to game speed – so you could present the team the option to just wait for Round 1, or another great idea given the circumstances would be to have them cross the pond during the Play-Ins to do a charity exhibition series against another high-level team or perhaps a super team of the best rest-of-world players. They’d still advance no matter what, but just to get them in gear and maybe spread some goodwill. This is obviously contingent on global recovery and travel restrictions.
The matchups for the play-in would be as follows.
(1) Washington Capitals vs (8) New Jersey Devils
(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs (7) New York Rangers
(3) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (6) New York Islanders
(4) Carolina Hurricanes vs (5) Columbus Blue Jackets
(1) Boston Bruins vs (8) Detroit Red Wings
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs (7) Ottawa Senators
(3) Toronto Maple Leafs vs (6) Buffalo Sabres
(4) Florida Panthers vs (5) Montreal Canadiens
(1) St. Louis Blues – Bye to Round 1 of Standard Playoffs
(2) Colorado Avalanche vs (7) Chicago Blackhawks
(3) Dallas Stars vs (6) Minnesota Wild
(4) Winnipeg Jets vs (5) Nashville Predators
(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs (8) San Jose Sharks
(2) Edmonton Oilers vs (7) Los Angeles Kings
(3) Calgary Flames vs (6) Anaheim Ducks
(4) Vancouver Canucks vs (5) Arizona Coyotes
Some will say that giving all the non-playoff teams a chance is unfair, and they’d be correct. At the same time, the playoffs are an inherently unfair beast in general – small sample knockouts often don’t reflect the long-term “best team”, due to shooting & save percentage luck, crazy bounces, poorly-timed injuries, and other factors all having a massive impact on results within single games, and only needing so many single games to advance. The playoffs are nothing more than a coin-toss that is only slightly weighted towards the favourite – which is part of why we love them.
We can work to normalize that, though. Firstly, the format is in their favour. Frankly, if the Bruins (+53 goal difference) get eliminated by the Red Wings (-122), we should probably accept this as the hockey gods interventing to provide us a destined outcome, because that’s the closest to a one-sided coin weight we’re ever going to get.
But here’s the catch I’m thinking of – to advance in the play-ins, the underdog needs to win the series by two or more games. Meaning that in a three-game format, the teams in the top half of their divisions only need 1 win, while the bottom half teams need 2. In a five-game format, the top-half needs 2, while the bottom needs 3, or 3 and 4 in a seven-game format. This would mean that the underdog would have to win decisively and truly earn their spot. In exchange for the higher difficulty, they will retain their draft lottery eligibility, and, well, have something to play for that they had little to no shot in playing for previously.
With this format, we can give teams still not completely “out of it” a chance to come back to life without needing to resume the regular season. We can give every fanbase an opportunity for closure, and a proper sendoff for the players. We can probably generate a good chunk of lost revenue as well, and it also means that we’ll have players in a little closer to game shape by the time we get to 16 teams.