Seven Ways for the NHL to Return

April 8, 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has become an issue affecting numerous sports leagues over the past few months with major issues arising over the last few weeks. The illness has become a worldwide issue, severely affecting many countries, and is now officially recognized as a pandemic. The effect on hockey specifically however has resulted in a few unanswered questions. The suspension of play and cancellations of many tournaments is obvious and certainly unfortunate but most questions revolve around the continuation of play, possible playoff formatting, and even the ramifications on the upcoming seasons salary cap.


For the NHL specifically, cancellation of play is a relatively uncharted territory. The last time NHL action was affected by a pandemic was the Spanish Flu outbreak which resulted in the cancellation of the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals. Otherwise, these are unprecedented times. Teams, players, and fans all remain clueless as the NHL figures out the next step. All that is clear thus far is that the step is still a few months away. 


All these questions make the issues of earlier so much more simple. Teams and players already had to make some adjustments due to stick shortages. Due to China’s preventative measures, the manufacturing of products like hockey sticks were put to a halt. Players had to restrict the use of sticks as a byproduct of that.


It certainly doesn’t help that players are dealing with it as well. The Ottawa Senators announced that two players in their organization had tested positive for the coronavirus; one of which is reportedly Nikita Zaitsev. It was also previously stated that a group of other Senators players were exhibiting symptoms and were undergoing testing. Some time later, the Colorado Avalanche had announced that two of their players had also tested positive, emphasizing that one had already recovered. Then, on April 1st, the Senators had also added that four more members of the organization had tested positive. Three players and one member of the staff. For the sake of confidentiality, names were not given. That brings the NHL player total to seven cases.


While the outbreak certainly doesn’t appear to be of the same magnitude as the NBA, many teams share arenas and the ease of transmission is extremely high.


Various articles have been released from various sources covering the coronavirus pandemic with much more depth, so instead I will move away from that and look towards the future. How can the league return from this?


The NHL has reportedly been asking NHL teams for possible scheduling dates in August, making summer hockey a real possibility. It may be easier to officially cancel the season altogether but the NHL isn’t too keen on that. The ramifications of the suspension of play on the salary cap are already significant and could become devastating without playoff revenue. Before the cancellation, the projected total for next season was between $84 million and $88.2 million. Now, it is currently a very real possibility that the cap could fall below the current total of $81.5 million. 


A full cancellation would also result in substantial financial losses for the league. It’s not hard to envision why cancellation is the least ideal scenario.


The NHL continues to look for a reasonable format to return with and have opened that discussion for suggestions from teams. That makes it become slightly more interesting as the variance in playoff formatting preference likely reflects a teams positioning in the standings. For example, the Winnipeg Jets who currently hold the first wild card spot and have played two more games than those close behind them would likely prefer to forego the remainder of the season and play the playoffs based on points. A team like the Vancouver Canucks however would prefer to base the standings off of points percentage which moves them from outside the playoffs into third in the pacific division. Montreal may prefer a more unconventional approach such as a 24 team tournament. The Canadiens currently sit 24th in the league.


Since the league is so adamant on returning, it may be worth exploring some potential options. The intention isn’t really to provide all possible formats and debate the advantages with a thorough comparison, but to rather give a brief idea as to what the NHL may be considering at this time.


1. Returning with a 24 team tournament


This seems to be the most popular option thus far and provides a way for the league to create more revenue. 


There are various ways to approach this. The primary idea is that teams will play in a tournament with brackets in which teams higher in the standings will have the opportunity to play fewer games. They could either continue until they have a final 16 teams and proceed with the playoffs as traditionally played or could continue with the tournament and involve the top tier teams as well.


The teams included would obviously vary on the version used. If it is just to determine the top-16, the top-8 could perhaps be exempt. If it is used to replace the traditional playoffs entirely, everyone will be involved instead.


Who Benefits: Teams ranked lower

Who Doesn’t: Teams ranked higher


2. Return with teams playing up to the 72 game mark and move into the playoffs with those in the spots


This is my favourite option. It allows for each team to have played an equal amount of games and provides some consistency in a time where we lack it. It also allows for teams to control their own destiny and adds a bit more unpredictability with the wildcard spots.


Looking back a few years later, it is also easier to view stats and understand that it was a 72 game season, rather than one between 68 and 71. It makes comparisons easier and the results slightly more concrete, similar to the lockout shortened 48 game season in 2012-13. 


An issue expressed by NHL players such as Connor McDavid was also the ease of returning after a long break. A mini-camp is definitely necessary but this also gives the players a few more games to get adjusted to competitive hockey again. Almost like a pre-season but with much higher stakes. Pre-playoffs? This provides each team with the opportunity to play in a game prior to the postseason.


Those with more games played would not have the same opportunity as those with less but could use that extra time to practice. An arrangement could also possibly be made to play scrimmage games against others. They are likely the detractors of this idea though.


As a note: The league could easily play up to 71 (or more) games instead but having 72 allows for every team to play at least a single extra game. I also prefer ending the season with an even total opposed to the odd total of 71. Its consistent with the games played total that the league typically has.


Who Benefits: Players, NHL, fans

Who Doesn’t: Teams with 71 games played


3. Just straight to the playoffs


This idea is endorsed by Sidney Crosby but is the least sensible option to me. The top of the league won’t mind it, nor would teams with more games played, but those who are in the wild card fight would state the contrary.


It puts teams who had played fewer games at an unfair disadvantage due to scheduling. Teams like Vancouver who remain out due to a tiebreaker but have fewer games played would be furious, and for good reason.


How does the league justify this format to an owner whose team could be in possession of a playoff spot had they earned an extra point in the games they were yet to play? I can’t envision many accepting this.


Who Benefits: Teams with more games played

Who Doesn’t: Teams with fewer games played


4. Return with playoffs based off points percentage


This is certainly a good option if scheduling or timing prohibits some of the others. The traditional playoff formatting remains and teams are looked at by points percentage, which accounts for the discrepancy in games played.


Who Benefits: Teams with fewer games played

Who Doesn’t: Teams with more games played


5. Continue and complete the regular season


I'm sure that everyone involved would prefer to complete the regular season if the possibility exists. The main issue with finishing the entire season are the scheduling constraints that would present itself alongside the time available for next season. If the season resumes in July, that would mean that the finals would be played in early October. Following that would be the offseason with the NHL Awards, draft, and free agency. Ideally there would be a short break for everyone to settle down and rest after the season. If the break is just one month, the earliest the season could begin is December, with training camp and the preseason.


So when would the 2020-21 regular season begin? Probably January. The regular season would span until July with playoffs lasting until September. It would take years for the schedule to adjust back to the current format and players would have to commit to losing much of their offseason.


It was anticipated that the pandemic would result in a condensed schedule but maybe this idea isn’t worth the inconvenience.


Who Benefits: The National Hockey League and Owners

Who Doesn’t: The Athletes… and possibly the Owners


6. 31 team tournament


This might be slightly ridiculous but it has its merits. 


The Detroit Red Wings, who just had the worst season of any team since 2000-01, could theoretically progress and make a push in this playoff replacement. While uncertainty is often mentioned by many (including myself) as a strength of the league, having a bottom team that was undoubtedly not in contention but is finding success, many of which were already mathematically eliminated, would put a damper on the trophy. Imagine the headlines if the league-leading Boston Bruins were eliminated by a historically bad Red Wings team? I mean, Detroit is currently winning the season series 2-1. It is a possibility, albeit a very unlikely one.


That being said, if the tournament were to be designed in such a way where teams are split into different brackets and where top tier teams have a considerable advantage, this could be an intriguing idea.


Every team in the league gets to be involved and many would tune in. That creates revenue for the league and enjoyment for the fans.


Still, the idea has a few issues. If each matchup is done in a series of three games, it may be a tad bit lengthy. Winning the cup likely won’t be the same either. The winner probably ends up with an asterisk reminding everyone that the victory isn’t equivalent to the others due to the unconventional formatting.


Who Benefits: The Fans?

Who Doesn’t: Probably everyone else


7. Cancel the season and return on schedule next season


This would certainly be disappointing but may be the best if public concerns persist. Teams in contention lose a year of opportunity and buyers at the deadline wasted great assets for players who in all likelihood provided little value. Of course, the health and safety of people takes priority. While it is immensely disappointing for hockey fans, health is always of most importance. At there’s least next season, and hopefully without delay.


Who Benefits: Humanity

Who Doesn’t: Hockey

Personally, my preference would be to see each team play up to 72 games and begin the playoffs from that point. As someone who frequently looks at stats, it becomes a bit more difficult to determine the difference between a player who dealt with an injury and those who remained completely healthy when they may have either played 68 or 71 games. Three games is a somewhat sizeable amount.


Regardless of the format, the most important aspect is for hockey to return. When it will remains to be seen. That last sentence applies to everything right now and with health at the forefront, hopefully the return of hockey isn't too far away. 

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