Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Possible NHL playoff formats, from the ideal to the weird. Then the weirder. Then even weirder.

The NHL is officially in uncharted territory, with a season that’s been paused with three weeks to go, no way of knowing when the games could resume, and no clear plan on what should happen if they do. Will this become the third season in NHL history without a champion? It certainly looks like it’s possible, maybe even likely. But if not, and we do award the Stanley Cup this season … well, how exactly do we even do that?

That’s the question that’s probably occupying a large chunk of the NHL’s brainpower these days, with various scenarios in play. There are a ton of unknowns here, not to mention some very real logistical problems that would have to be addressed, and it’s impossible for the league to make any firm decisions anytime soon. But they have to at least be weighing their options.

For example, this tweet went around earlier this week:

That would, needless to say, represent a huge departure from what hockey fans are used to. But as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston writes, it appears to indeed be on the table. That suggests that the NHL, or at least some of its teams and stakeholders, may be open to getting creative here.

Let’s help them out. Come with me as we head down the rabbit hole of ways the NHL could handle the rest of the 2019-20 season, if they even get that chance. We’ll start with the most options that say as close as possible to what we’re all used to, and work our way down to the weird stuff. And then we’ll keep going into the really weird. Let’s do this.


The best-case scenarios

We’re already well beyond any “in a perfect world” cases; that ship sailed once the season was paused. But at this point, we can at least hold out hope for something that looks like what we’re used to. Let’s start with those options.

Option 1: The status quo

The idea: We wait this out, then finish up the regular season before moving onto the playoffs as normal.

Pros: It’s the ideal scenario; beyond a few weeks off and little rust once the games resume, we get a typical season.

Cons: At this point, there’s essentially zero chance of there being enough time to do this.

Bottom line: I’m only including this option to set a baseline; it’s not happening.

Option 2: The almost status quo

The idea: OK, we won’t have time to finish the season. But when the NHL resumes, we at least play a few nights to get everyone to the same number of games, even if that’s something like 72 where some teams would only play once or twice. Then we move on to the usual 16-team, four-round playoffs.

Pros: Everyone gets to shake off the rust with a few games before the playoffs, and we get a (very abbreviated) playoff race to give bubble teams who are a few percentage points out of the race right now a chance to earn their way in.

Cons: Even with the elimination of 10 games per team, the timeline here is unlikely to work. We’d be asking players on bad teams to leave their families just for a few games that wouldn’t matter to them. And if you think teams get mad about losing games when they’re rusty after the bye week, imagine the reaction when they lose a playoff spot they’d been holding through 71 games based on a 72nd played after a month off.

Bottom line: This is more realistic than option 1, but only marginally.

Option 3: A play-in round

The idea: We stop the season, but do a mini-round of play-in games for the bubble teams. The exact format could vary, but let’s say we have each conference’s 7-through-10 seeds play a quick play-in round to determine who gets into the full tournament.

Pros: We’d get back to action with high-stakes hockey right out of the gate, without needing to involve the teams that aren’t in the running for anything. And it could be a nice proof-of-concept test run for the play-in format that people like Pierre LeBrun have been pushing over the years.

Cons: Putting aside your feelings about a play-in round, do we really think we’re in a position to add to the playoff format right now?

Bottom line: If time wasn’t a factor, this could be a great idea. Time is going to be a factor.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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