It feels like yesterday we all thought the NHL was packing up its bags and heading up to North Dakota or Manchester.
But as both the league and the NHLPA continue to wait out the current maelstrom that is the ongoing COVID-19 crisis — it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the NHL is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to a potential course of action to resume the paused 2019-20 season later this summer.
So far we’ve run quite the gamut of potential scenarios, ranging from playing games as is in empty arenas, traveling to neutral-site venues to resuming play at regional sites involving multiple clubs.
But beyond venues and the challenges involving implementing Phase 2 of the NHL’s return, all parties involved in the league’s contingency plans also have to deal with another looming question — what exactly is the post-stoppage NHL going to look like if/when play resumes?
Speaking with season-ticket holders last week, Cam Neely noted that jumping right into postseason play was a route that most players would balk at — given the need for these athletes to shake off the months of rust that have formed during this extended stoppage.
But, as we all can attest to, a lot can change in the span of a few days during this crisis.
As such, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the league is taking a close look at another possible scenario — in which the NHL adopts a 24-team playoff format if the 2019-20 season returns.
"On Wednesday, in the Return To Play committee call, I'm told that 16, 20, and 24 (teams) were talked about as options," TSN's Pierre LeBrun said during Thursday's "Insider Trading" segment. "But of those three, from talking to people around the league both on the teams' side and on the players' side, 24 teams seems to be gathering a bit of traction."
It’s certainly thinking outside the box, and plenty of hockey purists may not be too keen on teams treading water above the .500 mark earning a shot to compete for the Cup. But let’s face it, these are extraordinary times we’re facing — and certain concessions and alternatives need to be made if we want to see NHL hockey return this summer.
Here are a few pros and cons of the NHL adopting such a format this season:
Cutting down on time:
At first glance, it would seem as though the NHL has some major leeway when it comes to accommodating the remaining regular-season slate and a full playoff format. After all, the league has already noted that it's comfortable letting a resumption of play potentially carry through the late summer and early fall — with the 2020-21 campaign subsequently pushed back to December to account for such a move. Add in a barren stretch of TV programming lined up this summer, especially with the Olympics postponed to at least 2021, and the NHL should appear to have a clean slate to add some finality to this interrupted season.
But just because the NHL has an extended window, it doesn't necessarily mean that it should follow through with a return to play that lasts 3-4 months.
Whether it be empty arenas around North America or regional sites, one looming question appears to be a sticking point with players — if players are quarantined for their own safety for as long as an extended training camp, regular-season stretch and full postseason slate lasts, will they be kept apart from their families that entire time?
It's a concern that hasn't been lost on many that could take the ice in the coming months.
"Some of the potential resume-to-play options are on the table and if we’re able to do it then I just hope we’re able to do it in a very safe and logical way so that we don’t put anybody at risk," Torey Krug said last month. "I think guys want to be with their families at this time, so it would be tough to tear guys away from their families. And things like that. There are so many hurdles to be jumped over in order for us to get running again."
But by adopting a 24-team playoff format, the NHL could eliminate the need for another two or three weeks of regular-season play and could make the jump from an extended training camp into what could potentially be a best-of-three playoff round. Some potential exhibition games might be necessary to allow players to test themselves against actual competition before playoff games get underway, but even a measure like that would be much shorter than finishing out a full 10+ game stretch of regular-season matchups.
If this new format also helps the NHL avoid having to play playoff games into September or October, it could also save the league from having to potentially push the start of the 2020-21 campaign into the end of December, which could then prompt the league to continue games through the middle of the summer in 2021 — especially if it wants to schedule a full 82 games on the docket.
The longer a potential return of the 2019-20 season goes on, the greater the chance of additional health risks emerging — given the likelihood that a second wave could very well strike at some point in the fall, especially when coupled with the regular flu season. That stands as a hurdle that very well could hamper the 2020-21 season, but if playing 2019-20 regular-season games adds another 2-3 weeks to the league's expected ramp-up schedule, things could get dicey for both the remainder of this campaign AND next. The last thing the NHL wants, after all these months of planning and waiting, is for a return to get cut out from under them due to another surge of cases in the coming months.
Yes, the NHL does have an entire summer ahead of them to chart out the rest of this season, but that doesn't mean the clock is ticking in terms of closing things out in prompt (but safe) manner.
There are plenty of NHL teams that weren't thrilled about returning anyway:
If the NHL was adamant about finishing off the last 9-10 regular-season games, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise if teams way outside of the playoff picture were less than thrilled. If the NHL kept its regular playoff format intact, would teams at the bottom of the standings like the Red Wings and Senators really want to put up with all of the hassles of resuming training camp, getting back into game shape and playing for nothing more than pride for another 3-4 weeks before "officially" entering the offseason?
Drew Doughty of the 29-35-6 Kings echoed these sentiments when speaking last month about potentially returning to the ice for regular-season play.
"I know they want to give out the Stanley Cup this year, but in all seriousness, it's not going to be like winning a real Stanley Cup because the season wasn't finished," Doughty said. "There are teams that couldn't get in the playoffs, and I'm assuming they'd have to come up with a different format for it."
Agreeing to a format in which these teams below .500 and way out of playoff contention don't have to go through the same ramp-up period could benefit all parties, as that also shrinks the pool of teams, players and staff that the NHL would have to keep tabs on in terms of providing protecting gear, scheduling tests and collaborating with state and local officials in order to keep things running smoothly during these challenging times.
While those seven teams under .500 would be out of the picture, expanding this format to include 24 teams would ensure that every team over .500 when the season stopped on March 11 would be granted at least a shot at the Cup.
Is there a chance teams could have a bone to pick if a team holding on for dear life like the Canadiens (31-31-9) or Blackhawks (32-30-8) pull off a miracle run to the Cup? Certainly.
But given that a 24-team format would likely involve the top contenders being granted a reprieve from a play-in round, clubs like Boston, Tampa and St. Louis should already have a leg up on the rest of the competition. Also, from the NHL's perspective, there's plenty to be gained from energizing markets like Montreal, Chicago, New York, Minnesota, Winnipeg and others about the potential hope of an exciting postseason run.
Regular-season games might be needed to help shake off rust:
Diverting two-plus weeks of vital time toward finishing off regular-season games might be seen as an