The latest talks around the resumption of the 2019-20 NHL season, reported last week by Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman and others, are centered around skipping the regular season and going straight to a 24-team playoff format.
While the league’s initial plans to finish the regular season is still the best-case scenario financially, a 24-team playoff format is far more reasonable, Friedman wrote in his 31 Thoughts blog. By eliminating the bottom seven teams, the NHL is safer, more competitive, and can award the Stanley Cup in a timely manner.
Paused since March 12 due to COVID-19 concerns, it is all but guaranteed that if completed, the 2019-20 season will be played in empty arenas with strong social distancing precautions implemented in the cities that host games. Removing the seven teams at the bottom of the standings—the ones who have no reasonable shot at making the playoffs—would eliminate more than 160 players from these precautions. And that does not include the coaching staff, medical staff and media that travels with each team.
Los Angeles Kings general manager Rob Blake told reporters in April that it would be difficult for his team to have a training camp and prepare for a return just to play a few “meaningless” games then shut it down again. And Blake is absolutely correct. The Kings, like Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Anaheim, New Jersey, and Buffalo all have nothing to play for. And this becomes even more true if the NHL draft is held before the season resumes.
Expanding the playoffs to 24 teams gives teams battling for positioning an opportunity to win those final playoff spots. Last year the Avalanche needed a late-season run from goaltender Philipp Grubauer to will them into the playoffs and an upset over the top-seeded Calgary Flames.
With 24 teams, the NHL can host mini play-in tournaments to determine the wild card teams, while also allowing the teams at the top of each division to partake in a mini-tournament for positioning.
In the Central Division, Colorado could meet St. Louis in a best-of-three for the top spot in the west while Dallas, Winnipeg, Nashville and Minnesota partake in a tournament for the lower spots.
These mini-tournaments will give teams an opportunity to prepare for the intensity of playoff hockey without having to finish the remaining 189 games of the regular season, which is far more time-consuming.
Understandably so, these changes may ruin the integrity of the Stanley Cup for many. It may result in an asterisk being placed beside the name of the eventual 2020 Cup champion. But in these unprecedented times, it is vital for the NHL, if possible, to award a champion rather than have an incomplete etched into the record books forever.
While there is no clear path to resumption as of yet, and there is no timetable on when a decision needs to be made, the NHL will continue to explore all options.
But the most recent option of a 24-team playoff format is easily the most feasible that has been considered.