Tackling a Coronavirus Affected NHL Playoff Format

The utterly unprecedented response to COVID-19 has ground practically everything to a halt around the world. Hockey hasn’t been immune to that as leagues throughout North America and Europe have paused or canceled their seasons while the NHL is on indefinite hiatus.

The stoppage has left everyone wondering if or when the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be played. And if they’re played, what format will the league utilize? A lot of rumors have been floated thus far. One rumored format would see the playoffs expanded to account for a 24-team field. A plan formulated by some players would even see regular season games played. But just Wednesday, Pierre LeBrun quoted Bill Daly as saying anything they pursue would not impact the ability to play a full year in 2020-21.

There are so many balls up in the air at the moment. Some days it seems as if leagues, especially the NHL, are anticipating a quick return to play. Other days it seems as if we may not see any action again until the fall. With the CDC’s latest recommendations, it seems like the earliest we’d see any sports return would be June. Possibly late May.

I find it very hard to believe the NHL would be able to return with any sort of a regular season slate. The proposal reported by TSN would see preparations and play extend all the way into October, which seems preposterous to me. Given the current state of affairs, it seems that the most logical solution is for the league to adopt a modified playoff format and salvage what they can of the 2019-20 season.

So how might they do it? By taking what’s been reported and spitballing a couple of wrinkles, I came up with three different ways the NHL might approach a modified playoff format in order to still award the Stanley Cup for the 2019-20 season.

Wildcard Expansion

The most logical approach, in my opinion, may not provide enough of a financial boost for the league when it’s all said and done. However, I feel this format does enough to not only reward those teams which were in the playoff race, but expands the field to the point where teams, players, fans and sponsors get some much-needed bonus hockey.

Solution: Four extra Wild Card teams, four play-in rounds amid an otherwise unchanged playoff bracket.

The general framework is the same as what Elliotte Friedman floated on last week’s 31 Thoughts podcast. Two play-in series in each conference would include the four teams closest to the two wild card berths which they were competing for. This would allow for teams like Minnesota to get a taste of postseason action since their push for a playoff spot was cut short by the postponement. Meanwhile, the three teams at the top of their respective divisions would have a “first round” bye while they wait for the two wild card berths to be granted.

Given the timing at which the season was suspended, there were no fewer than five teams truly vying for wild card contention. To cut the season off with the current standings in place for playoff seeding, a number of surging teams would lose the opportunity to finish chasing down a wild card berth. Minnesota, Nashville and Florida are just a few of the teams on that bubble who would be robbed of that opportunity. Expanding the playoffs to capture two more teams in the wild card race would provide those teams with a valuable payoff for their efforts.

Seeding would be determined by points percentage at the time the season was postponed. While Friedman floated the idea for the play-in games to be decided by a two-game, total goals series, I’d much rather see them played in a five-game set (2-2-1). None of the teams pitted against each other would have massive travel requirements, so adding a couple of extra games wouldn’t add any undue stress on any of the clubs. Plus, extra games create extra ticket revenue and extra opportunities for TV ratings and revenues.

The rest of the playoffs would be formatted as usual. The beauty of this format is that the current divisional alignment stays pretty much intact. The play-in series simply adds an extra wrinkle without disrupting the entire system while granting teams on the playoff bubble the benefit of postseason play that they weren’t able to finish chasing down.

There are only two potential drawbacks to this system. One is that seeding by points percentage or total points (at the point of the postponement) will still edge teams out who were in the playoff race. This is especially true in the east as the Rangers and Panthers swap spots in the standings depending if you use points percentage or total points. Perhaps that’s evidence to expand the field further, but points percentage levels the field, making the total breakdown fair across the board whereas total points mostly favors teams who have played more games.

The second drawback is the potential for this layoff and play-in round to bring about similar results as the in-season bye week. The teams in the play-in round might have a distinct advantage to the teams getting those three-to-five extra games in the opening round. It could cause some uproar if a higher seed gets run out of the building against a lower seed who had the benefit of playing a few games before the second-round matchup. But short of keeping the numbers to a level where everyone will play the same number of rounds, that seems unavoidable given the unique situation the league is in. And given those circumstances, this feels like the cleanest way for the league to proceed.

24 Teams

Freidman also mentioned that the idea of a 24-team playoff was gaining popularity, a nugget that has been reported by multiple people over the last seven days. A 24-team expansion adds four more teams to the above example, likely pushing two teams in division-leading spots into an opening round matchup.

The 24-team bracket does a few things for the league. For starters, it adds additional opening round series. That means more ticket revenue, merchandise, concessions, etc. That will help impact the bottom line, which will be key given the way the shutdown will affect their business. With that in mind, it also opens up the opportunity for bigger markets to get some postseason action. Big market teams like the Rangers and Blackhawks earn berths in this setup, those markets would help drive revenues in house and possibly ratings on TV as well. The overall expansion compared to the usual playoff setup isn’t overly drastic, either. Even though it sounds crazy to grant playoff berths to 24 teams.

Unlike the setup above, not every team in a division leader position gets the same benefit they would in the usual format or the above proposal. There’s only room for four byes per conference, meaning the teams in third place in each division would have to play an extra round.

A 24-team approach beefs up the play-in round while everything else remains about the same.

Seeding isn’t quite as important in this method since the top two teams in each division would be the easiest way to seed the byes. I opted to seed by total points percentage rather than automatically granting that added benefit to any team that is second in their division. It only results in one swap (Dallas for Edmonton) but since the byes are limited, it seemed to make more sense to grant the teams with the better overall record (by point percentage) the benefit of a bye in the opening round.

As above, it would be best to me to play five games in the opening round before falling into the usual seven-game series. This format would also allow the league to reseed the second round if they so choose. That would abandon the current division format but could result in interesting matchups depending on upsets in the opening round. I’m indifferent to reseeding but it’s worth noting that as an option. I’m not in love with the 24-team option even though it’s just two more teams added compared to the first option I listed.

The Buffalo Model

This last plan is really only presented in jest as the Sabres managed to do poorly enough to still miss the playoffs in a year where the league could potentially allow three quarters of the teams into the postseason. Since things have been going quite poorly for the Sabres these days (just pay your employees, Terry), extending them a lifeline felt right.

It says an awful lot that you need this much creativity to sneak the Sabres into a “playoff” spot.

What you see here is a method by which 28 (!!) teams would make the postseason, with only the top four teams in each earning a bye for the opening round. I went by points percentage once again with the total seeding but with no divisional accommodations taken into account. That puts two Atlantic and two Central teams in positions to earn byes with the rest of each conference seeded by order of finish.

The Sabres nine-year playoff drought ends with a matchup against the last team to eliminate them, the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s a massive field that only excludes three teams from the entire league. A silly thing to consider but still ridiculous enough that it would be something the NHL would do. While it is a ridiculous format to consider it would do a couple of things for the league. One, it adds even more teams to the total field, increasing the earning potential for the altered end of the year. That earning potential could actually outweigh using a smaller but more logical playoff field. Secondly, it would bring most of the teams back into action for some “meaningful” games as compared to whatever an abbreviated regular season might look like at some point this summer. Forcing teams like the Sabres or Ducks play out the string just so every potential playoff team had an equal number of games played isn’t as logical or efficient as putting whatever number of teams (16, 20, 24, etc.) on a level playing field in a playoff format.

No matter what the league winds up doing for the playoffs (if they’re played), it seems inevitable that some sort of modification is going to be necessary. The league is set to lose out on buckets of revenue and next year’s cap is set to be one of the casualties should those earnings dry up. Reshaping the playoffs will grant the league an opportunity to claw back some cash by using a format that adds at least one more layer to the usual format of four rounds. When you think of how the league will need to manufacture some earning power, it almost makes the preposterous 28-team bracket feel like a possibility, though I still can’t ever fathom a universe where that’s a reality.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how the NHL approaches their schedule should they return to play. Given how the news seems to change hourly it’s hard to pin down just what the NHL’s timeline might be, but it’s looking more and more likely that they just stage the playoffs and nothing else. What format they choose remains to be seen.

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