Hockey fans in California won’t be thrilled with the NHL’s proposed 24-team, conference-based playoff format, but fans from some of the league’s biggest markets would owe a debt of gratitude to the decision makers.
In the latest proposal – first reported by Sportsnet - to get the NHL back on the ice, the top four seeds in each conference, determined by their standings points percentage when the regular season was paused on March 12, would automatically advance into the traditional 16-team structure.
The remaining 16 teams would have to compete in a best-of-five play-in round to complete the playoff bracket.
With the top 12 teams in each conference qualifying, the New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks – three Original Six clubs - would all reach the postseason. All three would have been left out of the regular playoff format that takes the top eight teams in each conference.
None of California’s three NHL teams would qualify, as the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks occupy the 13th, 14th and 15th spots, respectively, in the West. This would mark the first season since 1995-96 that California would not be represented in the playoffs.
The Arizona Coyotes are the 11th seed in the West and would be a playoff team for the first time since 2012 under the proposed format.
“I don’t think there’s a perfect situation,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said on ESPN’s On Ice podcast. “If it happens that you’re not in the top 16, then you have to accept it as a coach and as an organization and move on.”
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said he is in favour of expanding past the regular 16-team field.
“I think it’s important to expand the playoffs,” he said. “There are just too many teams that are two to three wins from each other. To be fair to everybody, for the welfare of the game, I think it’s important that we look at the larger format.”
As the top four teams in the East, the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers would automatically advance. The West’s leading quartet – the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars – would do the same.
The proposed format would have those top four seeds taking part in a three-game tournament during the play-in round, but it is unclear if those games would affect seeding or would serve as exhibition games to alleviate rust.
Predators forward Ryan Johansen isn’t overly concerned about whichever format is decided upon.
“It is what it is,” he said on Thursday in a video chat. “At the end of the day, you’ve got a team playing against another team. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose. That’s the bottom line, so I think that’s how our group and myself will be looking at it.”
The location of the games needs to be determined, though the earlier scenario of playing all games at one site appears to have been tabled. The most likely plan seems to be playing in two “hub” cities, one for each conference.
Las Vegas makes sense with all the amenities it can offer and, while a Canadian city remains a possibility, traveling across the border and dealing with international travel restrictions could be a headache the league would rather avoid.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said earlier this week that the league had narrowed its list of potential venues to eight or nine sites. Several cities submitted proposals to the NHL to become a hub and they include Las Vegas, Toronto, Minnesota, Edmonton and Vancouver.
“I don’t think anybody has a fixed timetable, particularly in North America right now,” Bettman said during a keynote interview for the Leaders Week sports business conference.
“We have been working very hard since we took the pause on March 12 to make sure that whatever the timing is, whatever the sequencing is, whatever physical ability we have in terms of locations to play, that we’re in a position to execute any or all of those options. There is still a great deal of uncertainty.”
If this format comes to fruition, there remains a long list of questions that need to be answered. Chief among them are safety, testing and quarantine procedures.
If one player tests positive, what would it take for him to return? What if several players on one team test positive? Though a longshot, what if both goaltenders on the same team are positive, will the team have a third goalie available?
Teams would certainly need a second training camp to get back up to speed, but what length is safe and would that be limited to team practices or include exhibition games as well?
The most intriguing aspect of the proposed format is the matchups and they have already been determined.
The East would have Pittsburgh (5) vs Montreal (12), Carolina (6) v Rangers (11), Islanders (7) v Florida (10) and Toronto (8) v Columbus (9).
The West has Edmonton (5) v Chicago (12), Nashville (6) v Arizona (11), Vancouver (7) v Minnesota (10) and Calgary (8) v Winnipeg (9).
The Penguins were 15 points better than the Canadiens when the season was paused but facing Carey Price in a short series could be problematic. That is not much of a benefit for Pittsburgh, who were 15 points ahead of Montreal.
Maybe the most entertaining series is the Oilers-Blackhawks matchup. Getting to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl squaring off against Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews would be exciting for any hockey fan.