Hockey is Officially Back: Breaking Down the 24-Team Playoff

*Clears throat* Hockey is back, baby!

On Tuesday, the NHL released a video of commissioner Gary Bettman explaining the NHL’s decision to push through the COVID-19 pandemic and finish the season. A lot was explained, some things tentative and others not. I’ll break down Bettman’s explanation and gives my thoughts on the now official 24-team playoff.

Before I say anything else, Bettman’s video camera quality is laughable. I know the NHL doesn’t make as much money as the NFL, but the NFL sent an entire video crew into commissioner Roger Goodell’s house for last month’s draft. They couldn’t at least send Bettman a nicer video camera? This man is a millionaire and it looks like he’s running Windows 95 from his mansion. You’re the commissioner for god sakes. The devil is in the details, folks.

Bettman’s shaky camera left much to be desired.

Other than Bettman’s atrocious video quality, the major update here is the confirmation of the rumored 24-team playoff. For those that don’t understand the essay Bettman read to the class, here’s a breakdown.

The top 12 teams in each conference will play again this season. That’s 24 teams total. That means that the remaining seven teams will not play again this season. So, if you’re a fan of the Sabres, Devils, Senators, Red Wings, Ducks, Kings, and Sharks, your team’s season is over.

The regular season is also over. That means you’re free to start arguing over who deserves the Hart Trophy and all the other awards. Eventually, I’ll take a look at some milestones that were hit this season that didn’t get any love because of the shutdown.

For the remaining games, each conference will play in one hub city. One hub for teams in the Eastern Conference and another for teams in the Western Conference. The league has not named official hub cities, but they did announce which cities they are considering. Those cities are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Vancouver. Please do not go and try to catch a glimpse of your team being bussed into the arena!

Each team will be provided secure lodging, space to practice, and transportation at each hub city. Each team will be limited to 50 personnel in each city. So, they won’t be traveling with huge parties as usual. Each arena will also allow a small group of support staff to be on-site at each practice or game.

The league will provide comprehensive testing at each hub city. They did not provide more information on testing.

In regard to the timeline, the league outlined four phases, the fourth being the return to hockey. We are currently in Phase 1, the quarantine phase. Phase 2 is what I discussed earlier this week. This is when players will return to their home market and will be allowed to work out in their team facilities in small groups. Phase 3 will mark the beginning of an official training camp. The league expects Phase 3 to begin in early to mid-July. Phase 4 is the beginning of actual hockey games. The NHL did not provide any firm dates as all plans are fluid right now pending social-distancing laws and other COVID-19-related changes.

The explanation of the playoff format is rather dense. The top four seeds in each conference by percentage points when the season was shut down will reach the First Round of the playoffs. Those eight teams are the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals, and Flyers in the Eastern Conference and the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars in the Western Conference. They’re in. If you’re a fan of one of those eight teams you can relax. Each team will play the remaining three teams in their conference in a round-robin tournament using regular-season overtime rules. Any ties in the round-robin tournament will be broken by regular-season points percentage.

These games will decide the seeding of the official First Round. So, for example, if the Flyers finish in first place in the round-robin tournament, they will be the first seed in the east. And if the Bruins finish in fourth, they will be the fourth seed.

The remaining eight teams in each conference will play a best-of-5 series for the right to advance to the playoffs. Playoff overtime rules will be used. This is called the qualifying round. The winner of each series in the qualifying round will meet a team from the round-robin round. This will make up the 16-team First Round.

The league has yet to decide if they will use a bracket or seeding for the playoff format. They have also not committed to whether the first and second rounds of the playoffs will be a best-of-5 or best-of-7 series. However, the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals will be a best-of-7 series. The league also has not committed to the location of the Conference Finals or Stanley Cup Finals but did say they will probably take place at each hub city as the first two rounds will.

That about sums up the format of how the league will move forward with the playoffs.

I don’t have any qualms with how the league chose to move forward. I think each team that has a claim to be in the playoffs has a shot to make it. The league gave each team on the bubble an opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup and what more can you ask for?

There are three parties that should have major gripes with this system. Those parties are the teams that were sitting in a wildcard position at the time of the shutdown, the top two teams in each division, and the non-wild card teams that are not in the round-robin group.

The teams that make up the first demographic are the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Jets, and Predators. Instead of having 10 games to fend off the teams on their heels to secure a playoff spot, they’ll have to fend off a much tougher opponent in a best-of-5 series.

Let’s take the Jets as an example. They were in the first wild-card spot in the West and two points in front of Nashville and Vancouver*. That means they would have had 11 games to fend off the Canucks and teams behind them. They would have had some control. Now, they have beat the Flames in a five-game series to advance to the first round. So, those four teams got screwed.

*Disclaimer: The Canucks are seeded above the Jets in the qualifying round because they played fewer games when the regular season ended.

As for top teams in each division, Boston, Washington, Vegas, and St. Louis. In their case, had they hung on to the top spot in their division, they would have played a wildcard team. Now, they’ll have to battle to reclaim that top spot against the best teams in their conference.

Let’s take Boston for example. They sat eight points above the next closest team in the Lightning. They were a lock to win the President’s Trophy and claim the top spot in their conference. This format does not benefit them as they could wind up as the fourth round-robin team and would have to play the top team that comes out of the qualifying round.

As for the other round-robin teams, the Lightning, Flyers, Avalanche, and Stars, this is a huge win for them. Each of the four finished either second or third in their division. That means they would have played the other non-wildcard team from their respective division.

One of my main gripes with the normal NHL playoff format is that this First-Round matchup isn’t fair because it pits two of the best teams in each division against each other so early in the playoffs. While it makes for an amazing matchup, a really good team goes home early. In Dallas’s case under this format, they would have had to playoff Colorado in the First-Round had the standings held up. That would have have been an unfair matchup. Dallas finished the regular season as the fourth-best team in the west.

The second and fourth-best teams in a conference shouldn’t matchup in the First-Round. Now, not only do they get to bypass the Avs, but they could play their way into the first-seed and would face one of the more inferior teams in the west. Minimum they would play the Oilers, who are the fifth-best team in the west because they nabbed that fourth spot. That could change the entire course of the playoffs! Dallas isn’t the only team that’s lucky. All four of these teams will avoid their divisional neighbor in the standings and will have an easier matchup in the First Round, at least on paper.

As for the non-wildcard teams, they drew another short straw. This will affect the Oilers, Flames, Penguins, and Maple Leafs. They were locks to make the playoffs While they will have an easy qualifying-round matchup, they will still have to win a best-of-5 series to clinch a playoff spot. It’s not fair to go from a guaranteed First-Round series to a play-in series. Imagine if the Maple Leafs and Oilers get knocked out int his round. I think Canada will just omit 2020 from its history books.

This format is an obvious bonus for the bottom teams that were on the outside looking in when the shutdown started. Some, like the Blackhawks and Canadiens, wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Now, instead of having to make up as many as ten points in 10 or so games, they only have to win three games in a best-of-5 series. It’s doubtful that they’ll make a run to the Conference Finals or beyond, but they still have a shot. Also, it could affect their lottery odds, but more on that another day.

The biggest winner in all of this is the fans. Even though they won’t be allowed to attend the games, hockey will be back. And if there is anything we can count on when it comes to playoff hockey, it’s that anything can happen. ■

Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.

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