If this were any normal late May in any normal year, something controversial, majestic, or weird would absolutely be going down in the National Hockey League. A phantom offsides call; a physics-defying goal; a face-lick; things of that nature.
The NHL’s postseason has long been one of the most chaotic in sports. Between the sloppy triple-overtime sudden-death marathons that hinge upon an exhausted lunge by some desperate fourth-liner, and the little-known, suddenly-hot goalies who bat away the status quo like it’s a shot on net, conventional wisdom is nowhere to be found in playoff hockey.
So it felt oddly … normal? on Tuesday when commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s plan to potentially salvage its 2019-20 season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. As Bettman outlined a framework for an ad-hoc Stanley Cup chase, making hockey the latest professional sport to grapple with the question of what to do next, his ideas were at once rollicking, ambitious, fun, and flawed. They sounded, in other words, almost like springtime hockey.
There is a fair amount we don’t (and can’t!) know about how (or even if!) this return to play will really take place. Some of Bettman’s proposals on Tuesday only raised more questions. But the announcement still offered some takeaways about what might lie ahead for the NHL.
When it comes to detail, the NHL’s proposal is a land of contrasts.
“This is a bit complicated,” Bettman remarked, in his classic deadpan tone, as he walked through the league’s proposed playbook for the coming months. This was true, both in terms of the information he shared and the many details that remain vague.
The gist of the NHL’s plan: 24 of the league’s 31 teams will have the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup at some point this summer, via a multiphase tournament that includes multigame play-in contests and a small round-robin tournament followed by more traditional playoff series. Barring future setbacks, training camps could open at the earliest on July 1, with play resuming later that month, and games would be concentrated in two geographic hubs, one back east and one out west. Some pieces of this are already locked in, like the eight “qualifying round” matchups between the teams that finished between fifth and 12th place in their conference standings, as determined by points percentage when the league shut down on March 12.
Here’s a look at the best-of-five qualifying round matchups in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. pic.twitter.com/09VDRR5Cpt— Devin Heroux (@Devin_Heroux) May 26, 2020
The winners of these five-game series will earn a playoff berth, while the losers will get a chance at a top-three pick in this year’s extremely bespoke and bonkers draft lottery. (More on that shortly.) The top four teams in each conference will essentially have a play-in bye, though they’ll compete in a three-game round robin to determine their playoff seeding.
As for exactly where all of this competition will occur, that minor little detail remains to be determined. For the purposes of flexibility, the hub locations will be announced later this summer, based on a number of factors related to infection rates and logistical issues. (The cities under consideration are: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver.) Discussions about who will be allowed in the hubs, from staff to family members, are ongoing.
While it makes sense that the league hasn’t nailed down locations yet, Bettman’s announcement also left out a few other particulars, too. For one, it hasn’t been decided yet how many games the early playoff series might be. More crucially, the league and its players haven’t yet come to an agreement about whether the postseason ought to have a hard bracket format (the league’s preference) or involve reseeding between rounds (the players’ wish).
The director’s cut offered some additional information.
In a follow-up Q&A session, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly went into a little more logistical detail on a number of topics. Daly said that out of fairness, the league might attempt to prevent teams from playing in a hub that is located in their own city. Would the league choose a Canadian city for a hub if the country’s 14-day quarantine policy persists? Probably not. Most pressingly, would one positive COVID-19 test automatically shut the entire operation down? Not necessarily, Daly said. (According to Nick Cotsonika of NHL.com, the league’s daily testing plan will require tens of thousands of tests.)
The biggest winners are the lowest seeds.
Tuesday was a fun day for fans of teams like the New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, and Chicago Blackhawks, all of whom probably would have missed the postseason in the before times but are now sitting pretty with almost zero pressure on their 11th-and 12th-seeded shoulders. Plus, they have the best of both worlds at their fingertips.
Win the play-in round and become the dark-horse low seed poised to take advantage of this crazy scrambled new NHL world! Lose, and it’s no skin off your back, plus you get valuable playoff experience in the long run for the youngsters! Oh, and the consolation prize is a shot at a seat in this summer’s most edge-of-your-seat competition …
That’s right: The NHL’s hottest action in the coming months will involve ping pong balls, not hockey pucks.
You know it’ll be a draft lottery for the ages when the notion of a “conditional Phase 2” is involved. The NHL’s big challenge in crafting its artisanal solution for this unprecedented situation was in satisfying various bubble-team constituents, from the ones who may have been angling for an early first-round pick to the ones who felt they deserved a playoff berth. The existence of the Qualifying Round and the potentially two-phased draft lottery addresses both sides of this spectrum.
As mentioned above, the teams that lose in the initial five-game play-in round will be given a shot—a long one, but still—at a top-three pick in the upcoming draft lottery. But it’s weirder than that! The lottery’s first phase will take place on June 26, before any new hockey will have been played. The eligible lottery teams include the bottom seven basement dwellers whose seasons are officially now over—as well as whichever eight teams lose in the play-in round.
If one of those teams (officially known as Teams A through H) wins the lottery and snags any (or, pleasehappenpleasehappen, all!) of the top three picks, a second lottery will be held, months later, in which all of the qualifying round losers will vie for that spot. Any questions?
Hold on to that hardware!
Even though Bettman declared the 2019-20 regular season over, it’s unclear whether we can start handing out accolades like the Rocket Richard trophy. As things currently stand, the award for the most goals scored in a season would be split between Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak, which is fitting: The players, each of whom scored 48 goals through March 12, were two of the NHL’s brightest spots in a truncated season. It’s a bummer that Ovechkin’s quest to break Wayne Gretzky’s seemingly unbreakable scoring record has been, for the time being, hampered. But his continued dominance at age 34 has been a joy to witness, as has Pastrnak’s truly ebullient play.
According to ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, however, it still remains to be ironed out how stats accumulated during the qualifying round will be counted: as regular-season totals, or as part of the playoffs? It may not be the most pressing outstanding question, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out. (I pity the analytics people whose stat scripts will be extremely broken by all of this.)
The pressure is on to determine the King in the North.
All of this will be a real boon to the hockey-talk world, with so many outcomes to parse and counterfactuals to cling to and players’ physical conditions to probably-unfairly judge when everyone is suddenly thrown from quarantine into hypercontrived competition.
And ultimately, the guys who will have the most eyes on them are the young guns who (a) play for Canadian teams and (b) are so youthful and talented that they have no excuses in the eyes of hockey fans for not being ready to tear things up right away when the league reopens. It’s one thing if a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins falters in this new format; on a macro level, the franchise doesn’t have much left to prove. The same is not true for the assumed next generation of hockey’s top talent, from whom much will be expected.
The Edmonton Oilers, who feature Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, had finally found their groove when the season was suspended. Now, they’ll play the Chicago Blackhawks, who have experienced weapons in players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. This kind of star-on-star matchup could be a dream for a league, and a chance for the Oilers to quickly right their ship.
Then there are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who also boast young talent saddled with harsh expectations in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. They, too, are highly vulnerable in their Qualifying Round matchup, against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ravaged by injuries, the Blue Jackets could make some noise if they have these extra months to get back players like Seth Jones.
The possibilities are endless. (Or, as Bettman so aptly put it on Tuesday: “I am certain that depending on which team you root for, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently.”)
The NHL is at once obsessed with its proud history and longstanding traditions and also has long been defined by its exceptions and idiosyncracies and odd bits of one-off trivia. (Even Wayne Gretzky was never technically drafted into the league!) So this plan has the potential to delight and annoy in equal measure. Ten years from now, when we look back on the Summer of 2020, what will be the big topic?
Will it mark the first of many Connor McDavid championships, or the last of many Edmonton Oilers first overall draft picks? Will we write think pieces about the long-term ramifications to the collective psyche of Toronto sports fans of winning an NBA title and then losing the team’s centerpiece followed immediately by winning a Cup avec asterisk and sans parade? Despite everyone’s best efforts, could the 10th-seeded Minnesota Wild win a Stanley Cup in their home rink? Or will John Tortorella win a Cup in Vancouver, as the elders once foretold—sort of?
Will I weep happy tears about the time Henrik Lundqvist went from bouncing tennis balls off his locked-down walls to dramatically coming off the bench to lead the Rangers to a victory funded entirely by house money? I shouldn’t have said that last one, probably; it’s a jinx. But in a mixed-up offseason like this one, maybe it’ll be good luck. None of us can go by the old road maps anymore, and that includes the hockey gods.