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The NHL Pre-restart Superlatives

Which bubble—Toronto or Edmonton—is the better, more intriguing place to be? We answer that through a series of hockey and non-hockey related investigations.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not anything new for the hockey world to fixate on Edmonton and Toronto. This spring, when the NHL suspended its season due to the global coronavirus pandemic, three of the league’s top nine scorers played for the Oilers or the Maple Leafs. Both cities have been scenes of NHL glories and embarrassments over the years, with their local teams winning their way to Stanley Cups (albeit long ago) and losing their way to top lottery picks.

These days, however, the reason for focusing on Edmonton and Toronto is without precedent: As the NHL prepares for its restart, beginning this Saturday, August 1, these are the two bubble cities that will host the improvised, isolated, and ambitious 2020 postseason.

Players and coaches from 12 Western and 12 Eastern Conference teams have already left their homes and families, for potentially more than two months, and begun to live and work and play in downtown Edmonton and Toronto, respectively. Both bubbles include multiple hotels (with each team assigned its own floor); numerous permanent and pop-up restaurants; and access to amenities like pools, cornhole, movie theaters, and, in Toronto, a professional soccer and football stadium.

And there will be hockey, too. The restart format will feature about a week’s worth of atypical, intriguing round-robin and qualifying play before transitioning into a regular best-of-seven, four-round playoff format—not that anything is regular these days. The more a team wins, the longer it is stuck in its bubble. Eventually, before the conference finals in September, the two quarantine zones will consolidate in Edmonton, where players’ families will be allowed to join them, and the remaining teams will battle for the Stanley Cup.

Even in a normal season, the playoffs run people ragged, but at least everyone gets to go home now and again. There’s no blueprint for a year like this one, when Elliotte Friedman has become indistinguishable from Joe Thornton before the postseason has even begun! And so, with the league split into dueling bubbles, and in the spirit of competition, we seek to investigate below: Which bubble, based on various factors ranging from on-ice matchups to musical instruments, is the better place to be?

Some questions, of course, can’t yet be answered. Will a bored, sequestered goalie shred those cornhole bags into kernels to see if he can make microwave popcorn in his hotel room? Will players lose their grip on reality when the bubble theaters start airing Tenet, and only Tenet, for weeks on end? What’s scarier: playing against Brad Marchand in the postseason, or being stuck on a hotel floor with him 24/7? What’s lonelier: the silence of a hotel room that no one but you can enter, or the quiet of an arena that has no idea when it’s going to hold tens of thousands again? For the next month, as hockey fans settle back into that semi-familiar routine of examining (and bickering about) the goings-on up in Canada, perhaps we’ll find out.

Best Round-Robin Intrigue

The NHL’s restart format is unusual, which makes it all the more compelling. Twelve teams from each conference, rather than the typical eight, will get a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. But not every franchise will have the same path to glory. Over the next few weeks, there will be three things going on inside the bubbles:

  1. A round-robin mini-tournament in which the top four teams from each bubble play one another to determine the 1-4 seeding in the first “normal” round of the playoffs (see no. 3 below)
  2. A best-of-five qualifying series, for the 5-12 seeds in each conference
  3. Four rounds of customary best-of-seven playoff series

Why the round robin? The rationale is that it lets the top teams return to play with what is essentially a qualifying-round bye, while still allowing them time to get acclimated to meaningful competition. Out West, the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars will size up one another warily for a few days, while back East the four top seeds are the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals, and Flyers.

The downside to this mini-tournament is that it won’t take much for a team to tumble from its in-season position. The Bruins, for example, have an eight-point lead in the East. In the round robin, though, they could easily play less like a buzzsaw and more like an aging team with a goalie who spent the past four months mostly changing diapers. (Tuukka, same!)

Better bubble: Truly a tough one. Colorado vs. Dallas is one of the early-round matchups I’m most excited to see, as both teams show up to this tournament with a lot to prove. The last two games the defending Cup champion St. Louis Blues and the 2018 finalist Golden Knights played against each other were high-scoring overtime thrillers. But in the East, every game feels heightened, even personal, from a Lightning-Capitals shoot-out to a Flyers-Bruins bruiser. (Have the Boston-D.C. head games already commenced?!) And with the newly healthy Pittsburgh Penguins likely to be waiting as the no. 5 seed, finishing last in the round robin might feel a lot like falling out of the nest and straight into the mouth of a pterodactyl.

Best Campfire Singalong

Maybe Jack Eichel can help judge this? He has time. In much the same way that all of us pathetic normies are out here (in here, I guess) en masse trying to buy sold-out 5-pound dumbbells and tie-dye kits online, seemingly every NHL player has had the same idea about how to cope with isolation: through the music, brother.

A whole lot of players appear to have brought guitars into their respective bubbles, and it’s fun to imagine which guys have been fine-tuning their James Hetfield riffs (or, better yet, their NHL ’94 themes) since they were kids and which are more the n00b “Wonderwall” types. Look, I learned to play “Three Little Birds” on my kid’s ukulele on YouTube, so I’m not judging.

Better bubble: Actually, you know what, I am judging: In a world of big guitars (and bigger gaming monitors), 22-year-old Colorado Avalanche forward Tyson Jost was man enough to bring a ukulele. With apologies to Braden Holtby, the West wins.

Strangest Subplot

No contest here: It doesn’t get any weirder than the Phoenix Coyotes finally making the playoffs after seven years of misses—only to have the team’s supposedly celebrated young general manager (who last fall signed a contract extension with the team’s new owner) nowhere to be found. Over the past week, the Arizona franchise has seen snipy back-and-forth press releases, a cleared-out office, and the end of John Chayka’s short, odd stint with the Coyotes. Meanwhile, the team also has some hockey going on.

Better bubble: Oh, to be a fly on the wall on the Coyotes’ hotel floor in the West!

Most Hilarious Possible First-Round Upset

It’s not impossible to envision the no. 12 seed Chicago Blackhawks unseating the kinda-home-team Edmonton Oilers in their qualifying round, considering Chicago’s core has three Stanley Cups to its name. But such an upset wouldn’t be the funniest, and laughter is what we’re after on this one.

Better bubble: The East features a real buffet of schadenfreude selections. John Tortorella presiding over a Leafs loss? Enough said. The Carolina Hurricanes may have been justified in being one of only two teams who voted against this return-to-play format, as they now play a Rangers team that barely squeaked into the playoffs yet went 4-0 against Carolina this season, but read the room, dudes; this won’t get you right with the hockey gods. Speaking of gods, if the Canadiens were to somehow beat the Penguins (they won’t, but dare to dream) the mon dieu!s would ring forth across Montreal.

Most Hilarious Possible First Overall Draft Pick

One of the most perfect subplots of this NHL offseason, unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fan, has been what happened with the draft lottery. To recap: The lottery took place on June 26, but we still don’t know which team has the no. 1 pick. That’s because the winner of the lottery happened to be the still-to-be-determined “Placeholder Team E,” defined as any one of eight teams that lose in the qualifying round. (A second lottery will be held in August to determine the lucky loser.)

Better bubble: So, when you put it this way, the Oilers losing in the first round could indeed be the most hilarious outcome. Sure, they already got four first overall picks in the span of six seasons, but what of it? That was years ago. Fifth time’s the charm. West.

Most Potentially Fraught Goalie Situation

Opening with a best-of-five qualifying-round matchup will almost certainly cause some in-net funkiness around the league, for a number of reasons. First, as The Hockey News pointed out, nearly half of the bubble teams currently have “unsettled” starting goalie roles, ranging from the Penguins to the Predators. And even those who don’t might be singing a different tune as soon as they’re down 1-0 in the series and staring down the barrel of a 2-0 first period deficit in Game 2. The playoffs are always a festival of small sample sizes and hot goalies, but this postseason ought to begin a bit more colorfully than usual.

Better bubble: While there are some TBD situations in the East—the Penguins still don’t seem to have fully identified their starter—the best goalie seesawing is likely to be observed out West, between the Minnesota Wild, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Vegas Golden Knights (whose choice between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner threatens to tear the Las Vegas Review Journal apart!).

Best Chance of Witnessing Media Scaling the Arena Gates Like the Zombies in World War Z

The Professional Hockey Writers Association has been publicly pissed about the NHL’s playoff media policy, which allows a small handful of writers into the bubble but no one else. From a public health standpoint, the league is justified in wanting the fewest people possible within the bubble. On the other hand, though, it really is wild to know that one of the most unusual and historic periods in hockey history is unfolding in the hearts of two cities that have hockey’s biggest, maddest media apparatuses—and that the usual insiders will be on the outside, catching glimpses like anyone else.

Better bubble: East. While I can absolutely envision Mark Spector shimmying through an air duct and tiptoeing along the catwalk at Rogers Place, he strikes me as more of a lone wolf operator. When it comes to a coordinated operation, my money’s on the sheer numbers of hockey writers and broadcasters in Toronto, who will only swell in size and strength the further into the playoffs the Leafs go. (I envision Pierre LeBrun in the role of the Doof Warrior, blaring Rush.)

Best Overall Bubble Perk

Better bubble: The East bubble gives players access to BMO Field, AND it has pickleball! Say no more.

Most Compelling Player(s) to Follow

When Steven Stamkos shut down his regular season on March 2 for surgery on a core muscle injury, it was one more in a series of setbacks for the electric Lightning sharpshooter. The season’s layoff allowed Stamkos to get back to full strength, and although he hurt himself again in a voluntary workout a few weeks ago, he will most likely be back in action soon.

This is a fortunate break for the Lightning, who’ll need their captain if they want to shrug off their past playoff ghosts and take advantage of this strange situation. The interplay between Stamkos and Lightning coach Jon Cooper has always felt slightly chilly, and it’s hard to know how either might react to a disappointing showing on the heels of last season’s Presidents’ Trophy campaign that ended in a first-round sweep by the Blue Jackets.

In Washington, the late-February acquisition of the talented but often underperforming Ilya Kovalchuk could yield fascinating results, with Kovalchuk—a pal of Alex Ovechkin, who is surely eager to pick up where he left off from the left circle—able to slot in as one more weapon on an offensively terrifying team.

It’s a younger cohort of players who may carve out truly memorable performances in this strange summer showcase, though. This includes Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, whose return from injury comes at an opportune time, and the usual young guns on the Oilers and Leafs. Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin took some starting time from Henrik Lundqvist this season; will he finish the year in net? And don’t forget about Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson in Vancouver, both of whom will be experiencing an NHL postseason for the first time and have very little to lose by going all out.

Better bubble: Sorry, Stammer: the answer here is West. In a coaches poll done by The Athletic, there was an overwhelming consensus answer to the question of: “Which star player has the ability to carry his team to the Stanley Cup?” No one got even half as many votes as the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, a respected player coming off three straight 90-plus-point seasons who nevertheless has flown as quietly under the radar as humanly possible. (Despite having played seven seasons in the NHL, he’s still only 24 years old.) Should the newly-healthy Avalanche live up to their true potential as contenders, it could establish a lasting reputation for MacKinnon as one of the league’s most important leaders.

Worst Dressed

Better bubble: I don’t even have to look into what sort of fashions are planned in Toronto; I’ve seen enough. (Bangs gavel with Minnesota Wild team logo on it.) Go West, you collared kings. Godspeed.