Thanks in part to Connor McDavid, the NHL is planning to resume its 2019-20 season.
The Edmonton Oilers superstar was a member of the league's Return to Play Committee, a group of representatives from the NHL office and the players' association who discussed the best way for the campaign to resume. After weeks of deliberation, the NHL announced Tuesday that it would move forward with a 24-team modified postseason format to crown a Stanley Cup champion in 2020. The regular season is officially over, so the next time teams take the ice, they would be fighting for their playoff lives.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, McDavid spoke about what it meant to be a part of the committee. He said it was "fun" to take part in the process, even if there was plenty of disagreement over what was the best course of action.
"There was lots of back and forth," McDavid said. "I can't say that everyone agreed on everything, but that was the point of the committee — to debate stuff and take it to a larger sample size — and I feel like we've done our job in putting together a format."
Based on that format, the Oilers are looking at a qualifying-round matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks with a berth in the first round on the line. Chicago would almost certainly have missed the playoffs had the season not been suspended; it had just a 2.5 percent chance of making the postseason when play was stopped March 12 according to hockey-reference.com. It did, however, win the season series with Edmonton 2-1.
The inclusion of Chicago and Montreal — which had an even slimmer chance to make the playoffs — drew annoyance from certain camps, but McDavid still thinks the format will be a fair test to determine the Stanley Cup champion.
"That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there's just no way," he said. "I mean, we've beaten this thing to death, there's just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn't the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact."
"Let's say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup. I think they're a very deserving team. If they're going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There's never going to be a perfect scenario."
The Oilers' matchup against the Blackhawks would take place in a to-be-determined hub city without fans present. That's disappointing for McDavid, who would have much preferred playing in front of the Edmonton faithful.
"There's definitely going to be some loss of home-ice advantage," he said. "It's not going to be the same, there's no doubt about that. It sucks, frankly, but we've got to do what we've got to do to get back to playing hockey, and I'm sure those fans will be cheering loud in their living rooms or wherever they're watching from."
Though the playoff format has been established, there are still plenty of concerns over player and staff safety that must be assuaged before the league can fully commit to a return.
"We were trying to get the format in place first and we've got that, so now I think those (other) are questions that start to need answers," McDavid said. "The safety of our players and of everyone involved is paramount and that's the main issue that's got to get solved right now. I think that's what needs to be answered before anything happens and we move forward."
McDavid's teammate Darnell Nurse, who joined him on the conference call, weighed in on whether players would feel comfortable returning to the ice if a player tests positive for COVID-19 in the next few weeks.
"I think every single person has a different comfort level," he said. "I mean, It's easy for a lot of people to sit back and say, 'You guys are in a low-risk demographic,' but there are hundreds of thousands of families that have been affected by this.
"This is an area that we've never been, never had to deal with, so those are questions that I think as a collective, as players, you have to come together and say, you know, if one guy tests positive but everyone else on the team test negative, I think that's where you're going to be comfortable playing. But at the same time, that's where the importance of testing is going to come in. No matter what the format, testing is going to be huge."