It would be ignorant to pretend I have any idea when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. All we can do, as hockey writers or anyone else, is play the “what if” game. Fact is, there is a chance that the 2019-20 NHL season will not be completed. But the glass-half-full-side of me says it could be the most epic hockey we’ve ever seen.
These unprecedented times are unlike anything anyone has experienced in 101 years. Besides the 2004-05 lockout, the last time the NHL did not award a Stanley Cup was in 1919 after the Spanish flu pandemic infected roughly 500 million, or 1/4th of the Earth’s population.
To predict the peak of the COVID-19 would be nonsensical. But as an optimist, I’d like to imagine that life will return to normalcy one day, and perhaps during the summer.
So, what if the NHL returned in July and played a two-month traditional playoff to award the Stanley Cup? T-shirts and shorts outside and hockey “sweaters” and shorts in the arenas. Firing up the grill in the summer heat before enduring the coldness of an ice rink for three hours.
There’s much to be decided before the league could begin the postponed playoffs. Who gets in? Will we stick to a 16-team bracket after the regular season? Or do we scrap the remaining 10-15 games and go straight into an expanded playoff, perhaps a pre-tournament bracket to determine the wild-card seeds.
Once all that is figured out and the playoff picture is more apparent, the best playoff hockey we’ve ever seen could be in store.
The return of sports would be a breath of fresh air for hockey players and everyone else. NHL players are itching to take the ice just as much as fans are itching to tune in. The energy surrounding the return of hockey after the “pause” would be fantastic.
With no nagging injuries and the resumption of play, the physical health of the players could perhaps be the biggest factor. And the Avalanche could be the team to beat.
The injury-depleted Avs were in the midst of a 20-game stretch over 38 days to finish the season. The injuries had piled up on Avs coach Jared Bednar as he tried to draw a fine line between practices, morning skates, and keeping his players fresh for the next game.
Colorado’s last game before the break saw it take the ice without All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon, top-line winger Mikko Rantanen, second-line forwards Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, as well as goaltender Philip Grubauer and depth forward Matt Calvert.
It was a bit much.
But not only would this four-month layoff bring those players back, it would also heal the rest of the lineup that, let’s face it after 60+ games are all playing with some sort of aches and bruises.
And there’s one more name—a forgotten name—that may also have a chance of returning: Colin Wilson, who has only played nine games after undergoing surgery.
The utility forward can play throughout the lineup and scored some big goals a year ago in the playoffs.
Throughout the NHL, you could tune into the playoffs and see a completely healthy lineup as if you were starting up a game of EA Sports NHL 20.
Remember how the Pittsburgh Penguins added forward Jason Zucker because Jake Guentzel went down for the season? Well, the former may very well line up with the latter on their top line.
Carolina’s defense, which saw a massive makeover at the deadline, acquiring Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen to replace Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton, could suddenly see all four of them in the lineup at the same time.
If it’s possible to play hockey before October (or perhaps into early October) to finish the 2020 season and award a champion, the NHL will do everything it can to make it happen. And while nothing is guaranteed, that’s the plan.
During the general manager conference call on Tuesday, the NHL asked for teams to provide home arena availability through the month of August. And then Wednesday, the NHL officially postponed the scouting combine, awards show, and the draft.
To me, that sounds like the league is looking to replace these events with the resumption of the 2019-20 season.