The Return of Sports: My Take on the NHL’s Plan to Return

It’s going to be around another month before we actually see hockey again, but today, the NHL became the first of America’s 4 largest sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) to announce their plan for a return to play. This was really inspiring to hear, especially after reports that the MLB is nowhere near an agreement with its players on a return. It means I can begin to speculate about the NHL playoffs, and there’s now a timeline in place for sports to return.

Before we get into the details, I’d like to talk a little bit about my plans for this website as the country reopens, the online school year winds down, and sports come closer to a return.

I’ll be working on editing down my journal about the first 75 days of quarantine, which I called “Life Without Sports”. In the meantime, I’ll be:

  • Continuing my NFL Draft Report Cards series
  • Starting this new column, The Return of Sports, where I discuss the upcoming return of sports leagues and eventually, my experiences watching sports in this new normal.

As summer approaches, I’ll also be getting more active on my fantasy football Instagram account, @bsmfantasyfootball as NFL minicamps are set to begin as early as June 15 and preparation for the fantasy football season begins.

But today, I’ll be focusing on the NHL’s plan to return to play, which was announced by commissioner Gary Bettman on an NBCSN special.

What We Know (The Facts)

  • Bettman said today that the NHL is currently in Phase 1 of its pause, in which all NHL facilities remain closed
  • Phase 2, the reopening of facilities for small group training will officially begin on June 1
  • Phase 3, a formal NHL training camp, will begin no earlier than July 1
  • About 2-3 weeks after the beginning of Phase 3, a 24-team NHL playoff. The NHL regular season is over.
  • How the playoff will work:
    • Games will be played at central hubs, one for the Eastern Conference and one for the Western Conference. The cities in the running to be central hubs are:
      • Chicago, IL (Home of the Blackhawks)
      • Columbus, OH (Home of the Blue Jackets)
      • Dallas, TX (Home of the Stars)
      • Edmonton, AB (Home of the Oilers)
      • Las Vegas, NV (Home of the Golden Knights)
      • Los Angeles, CA (Home of the Kings)
      • Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (Home of the Wild)
      • Pittsburgh, PA (Home of the Penguins)
      • Toronto, ON (Home of the Maple Leafs)
      • Vancouver, BC (Home of the Canucks)
    • Round Robin: The top four teams in each conference will participate in a Round Robin, with each team playing each of the three other teams from their conference once (regular season overtime rules will apply)
    • Qualifying Round: Teams 5-12 in each conference will be matched up for a best of 5 series to qualify for the Round of 16.
    • Round of 16 and Round of 8: Will be best of 5 of best of 7, the league is unsure whether they will put together a formal playoff bracket or determine match-ups based on seeding like the NFL playoffs
    • Conference Finals: Will be best of 7, played in the two hub cities
    • Stanley Cup Finals: Also best of 7, will likely be in one of the two hub cities

My Thoughts on the Plan

Do I Think the Plan is Fair?

Overall, I think this is a fair plan for the continuation of the NHL season. The bottom 3-4 teams in each conference had little chance at playoff contention, and the round robins and qualifying rounds essentially replace the rest of the regular season with more meaningful games, which will definitely increase viewership. In addition, I like the initiative the NHL and NHLPA took in getting a plan in place. If this planning allows the NHL to be the first of the Big 4 sports to return, that will also increase viewership. Normally, I’m juggling the MLB season, NBA playoffs, and NHL playoffs. I’ll absolutely watch if the NHL is the first Big 4 sport to return.

Though I am a bit disappointed that the Bruins aren’t guaranteed the #1 seed, the regular season resuming wouldn’t guarantee that either. Like Gary Bettman said, there is no plan that will fully satisfy every NHL fan. Overall, the top four teams in each conference have a significant advantage over the other teams, and those were the teams that had the best chance at bringing home the Stanley Cup.

One thing that could make it unfair is the fact that 9 of the 10 potential central hubs would give a singular team the home field advantage (they would not have to travel). If possible, I think it would be good for the NHL to choose Boston, MA (home of the #1 Eastern Conference team, the Bruins) and St. Louis, MO (home of the #1 Western Conference team, the Blues) as hub cities. However, those two cities are not on the list.

The plan is not perfect, but I think it gives us a pretty fair conclusion to the season for all 31 teams. The 7 teams that were eliminated will have a huge advantage in the NHL draft lottery (except for the Sharks, who traded their 1st rounder to Ottawa in the Erik Karlsson trade).

How Might the Logistics and Timeline Work Out?

I’ve always been interested in analytics, and I’ve followed COVID-19 metrics very closely. It appears that most U.S. states are past their peak and entering an overall decline. It will be important to see how the reopening of all 50 states and Phase 2 of the NHL pause impact public health before jumping into Phase 3. But I’m confident that Phase 3 will begin on July 1. Since NHL players will be training throughout June, I think it’s possible that the Round Robin and qualifying rounds could begin after two weeks of Phase 3. If all this is true, the following would be my proposed timeline for the NHL:

  • Wednesday, July 15: Teams report to hub cities (hopefully Boston and St. Louis, but I think the best options from Bettman’s list would be Pittsburgh, PA and Las Vegas, NV)
  • Thursday, July 16 – Saturday, July 25: Round Robin games and Qualifying Round take place
  • Sunday, July 26 – Tuesday, August 4 – 5-game Round of 16 (match-ups determined by formal bracket)
  • Wednesday, August 5 – Friday, August 14 – 5-game Round of 8
  • Saturday, August 15 – Friday, August 28 – 7-game Conference finals
  • Saturday, August 29 – Thursday, September 10 – 7-game Stanley Cup finals (hosted in hub city of team with the better point percentage)
  • Saturday, September 12 – 2020 NHL Draft
  • Monday, September 14 – 2020 NHL Free Agency Begins (Three Weeks to Finalize Rosters)
  • Monday, September 21 – 2020-21 NHL Preseason Begins
  • Monday, October 5 – 2020-21 NHL Regular Season Begins as normal (possibly still no fans)

I think this is a realistic timeline for the NHL to safely play games. I think the NHL should stick to a formal bracket and cut down the the Rounds of 16 and 8 to five games in order to complete the playoffs in time for the 2020-21 season to begin. They’ll have to speed up free agency and cut those rounds to five games in order to do this.

In the qualifying round, I would think teams would play just about every other day, meaning three games are played in each hub city every day. For the East, these games could be at 2PM, 5PM, and 8PM EST, while the West could have games at 2PM, 5PM, and 8PM PST. I think qualifying games should take priority over the Round Robin, so the Round Robin should be the first game each day (further away from prime time).

Once the 16-team bracket is set, it would be down to two games per city per day, in which teams could rotate between the 5PM and 8PM slots.

Once it’s down to 8 teams, every game could be a prime time game.

This could bring in a lot of viewers, especially if the NHL comes back before other sports.

Games could be aired on channels like NBC, NBCSN and the NHL Network and simulcasted onto local stations (like NESN in Boston) for people who don’t have NHL Network or NBCSN in their cable packages.

Who Will Succeed in this Modified Format

Which Teams have the best shot at the Stanley Cup?

I think this format favors the top four teams in each conference heavily. Before the pause, the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals, Blues, and Stars stood out to me as teams who could contend for a Stanley Cup. Below I’ve ranked the teams who qualify for the Round Robin based on the chance I think they have at winning the Stanley Cup.

SportsReport: Bruins Top Canadiens; Wild Beats Devils | WAMC

1) Boston Bruins: They’ve been dominating all season long, their first line is stacked and they have good depth to add to it.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Storm Renew With Clear Channel/Tampa | Tampa ...

2) Tampa Bay Lightning: If Steven Stamkos is healthy, they’ll have one of the most star-studded rosters in the league and pose a big threat in the Eastern Conference.

dallas stars logo | Dallas Stars Logo | Dallas stars, Dallas stars ...

3) Dallas Stars: The Stars barely made it into the Round Robin, but I could see them making a big playoff run with Tyler Seguin leading the team and a mix of other veteran talent and young talent around him.

St. Louis Blues Jersey Logo - National Hockey League (NHL) - Chris ...

4) St. Louis Blues: The defending Stanley Cup champs beat the Bruins in 2019, but they’ve been without Vladimir Tarasenko all season. Even with Tarasenko back, will things be the same?

NHL logo rankings No. 28: Washington Capitals - TheHockeyNews

5) Washington Capitals: The Caps have been an elite team in this league since Alex Ovechkin reached his prime, but can they repeat the playoff success they had a couple years back?

Vegas Golden Knights - Studio 21 Tattoo

6) Vegas Golden Knights: They don’t quite have the talent they had during their historic Year 1 Stanley Cup run, and they may have lost their momentum after a big run before the pause. But I could still see them winning it all if they can get past St. Louis and Dallas in their conference.

Gonna Fly Now: The Story Behind the Philadelphia Flyers Brand ...

7) Philadelphia Flyers: I think they’ll have a hard time fending off their competition in the Round Robin and that could derail their playoff run, but they still have the talent to win a Cup.

Colorado Avalanche Logo | HISTORY & MEANING & PNG

8) Colorado Avalanche: It says something that they were able to compete with the Blues and Stars in their division, but even with Nathan MacKinnon, I don’t think they have a Stanley Cup run in them.

Who Will Make the Round of 16?

I’ll have full playoff predictions once the details are ironed out, but here’s my prediction of the 8 playoff teams in each conference by seed:

Eastern Conference

  1. Boston Bruins
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning
  3. Washington Capitals
  4. Philadelphia Flyers
  5. Pittsburgh Penguins
  6. Carolina Hurricanes
  7. Florida Panthers (will upset New York Islanders in qualifier)
  8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Western Conference

  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Vegas Golden Knights (Increase from Round Robin)
  3. Dallas Stars (Increase from Round Robin)
  4. Colorado Avalanche (Decrease from Round Robin)
  5. Edmonton Oilers
  6. Nashville Predators
  7. Vancouver Canucks
  8. Calgary Flames

As you can see, I don’t see many teams being affected by the Round Robin and qualifying round, but it will give teams their fair chance.

That’s all for this first entry of the Return to Sports series. I’ll be back next week with my take on the ongoing MLB negotiations and with any other updates that come about this week.

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