The NHL’s wild alternate season plan, explained

Moving straight to playoff hockey? Yes please.

On Tuesday night the NHL unveiled its plan to resume play this season in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, and inside of all the proposed plans leagues are coming up with, this is hands-down the absolute best.

The 2020 regular season is cancelled. There will be no more games played, the slate is wiped clean. The league will instead transition into a 24-team playoff format, which rewards teams that had the best records entering the suspension of play, while widening the field to give more teams a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

How is this going to work?

The league will take the top four teams in each conference by points percentage and put them in a pool. These teams will play a mini, Round Robin tournament to determine the seeding for the playoffs. As it stands these teams will be:

East: Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals.

West: Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights.

The remaining 16 teams will face off in play-in series’ to decide who faces who in the first round. These series are set in stone based on their points percentages, so we know how this preliminary round will look.

East

West

Naturally seeding for these play-in teams would occur based on their standing entering the series. For example, if the Blackhawks upset the Oilers they would enter the playoffs as the lowest seed, and play the first place team from the Western Conference round robin.

This format is not great for teams like the Hurricanes:

Obviously there are no easy solutions to neatly wrap up a season that has been unlike any we’ve ever seen or, hopefully, we’ll ever see again, but it’s especially galling when you look at the standings around the league and see that the Hurricanes would have had a bye — a bye! — in the West, yet in the East they’re staring directly down the barrel of not even making the “real” playoffs.

Tom Hunter from our Colorado Avalanche site, Mile High Hockey, thinks it may be a bit too intricate.

“In typical NHL fashion, the league seems to have made their return to play plan more complicated than it needs to be. Two draft lotteries, a new ‘play-in’ component and a 16 team playoff that may or may not include a best of five series for the first two rounds. The way the league put together the format only makes sense when you remember that the league needs to create as many games as possible to fulfill television contracts.”

Where would games be played?

There was speculation the NHL would select a single host city to handle games, however under this new plan there would be two “hub” cities, one for the east and one for the west to handle the respective tournaments.

These locations have not been finalized, but current prospective cities are: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.

These locations would allow for players to be monitored and routinely tested, as well as keeping them as isolated as possible for the safety of players and NHL employees. Under the plan teams would each be limited to having 50 personnel each in their host cities to limit the amount of people who come in contact with each other.

When is this set to begin?

There is no concrete date on when the NHL will resume play. The league is waiting to see how the pandemic progresses to finalize details, however there is a loose plan for how the playoff will begin using a four phase system.

  • Phase 1 (Tuesday): Announcing the league’s intentions to end the regular season and convert to the 24 team playoff.
  • Phase 2 (June): Return to play plan announced to teams and the public with host cities and final details.
  • Phase 3 (July): A mini training camp for teams and players to return to playing condition before starting the playoffs.
  • Phase 4 (No date): Commencement of round robin, qualifying round and playoff play.

So is this a good idea?

The hallmark moment for the start of the coronavirus crisis for sports fans was the announcement that March Madness would be cancelled. We missed out on one of the most exciting months in sports with nothing to take its place. This expanded NHL Playoff format would immediately garner attention for its uniqueness, and give every sports fan, not just dedicated hockey fans, an event to look forward to.

Kent Basky from our Canucks Site, Nucks Misconduct, weighed in on how fans are feeling about the return.

The return to action is something that definitely has Canucks fans excited, which is partly based on the game returning, a general vibe of seeing the team making positive strides this season, and most importantly, the first playoff appearance in 5 years for the team. As far as whether a return to action without a vaccine is a good idea, the fanbase is predictably mixed.

There is nothing in sports like playoff hockey, period. The intensity, the drama — we’re getting more of all that. While winning the Stanley Cup this year might have an asterisk attached to it in the history books, changing the season format is an excellent way not only to ensure we have a winner — but also do so in the fairest, most drama-packed way possible.

Fans will not be in attendance, at this point we all know that, but that could also bring a unique aspect to watching hockey. As the UFC showed us, there’s a certain allure to being able to hear things we just don’t get to during crowded sporting events, and this gives the opportunity to learn about the sport in ways many might not be able to appreciate.

The NHL isn’t trying to push the season back and awkwardly resume mid-way, but instead giving us a well-rounded, and most important well-reasoned way for the league to finish up the year. Whenever this playoff tournament takes place it’s going to be a blast, while hopefully safe — and I’m so excited for it.

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