How the 2020 NHL playoffs can be the greatest ever

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Thursday, May 28, 2020

The conversation I've been having inside my head this week:

Hockey Brain: "Hooray, hockey's comin' back!"

Cynical Brain: "This 24-team tournament and elaborate draft lottery are merely the framework for a possible return to finish the 2019-20 NHL season. It's candy for the sugar-starved. It's a shiny object for those seeking willful distraction from the issues still facing a return to play: the location of the hub cities, and the health and safety of players and their families stuck inside of them; capacity for testing; the protocols for players and staff who test positive for the coronavirus; governmental regulations; and all of the other complicated issues facing a league seeking to continue on during a global pandemic. Tuesday's announcement was designed, for weeks, as a way to give fans a sense of progress and give the hockey community something to talk about as a respite in dire times. That's not even touching on the inequities of the format they've settled on, that somehow manages to both punish current playoff teams (giving them no benefit in a qualification round) and unprecedentedly reward them (giving them a shot at Alexis Lafrenire after losing a five-game series). The NHL won the messaging game because no one bothered to read the fine print."

Hockey Brain: "Hooray, hockey's comin' back!"

Look, there's a mountain to climb for the NHL, and at the top of that mountain is an infectious disease that has killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S. alone. Let's not be under any delusions about how stacked the deck is against hockey coming back, and how many very dedicated fans would rather it not come back at this time.

But to acknowledge my Hockey Brain for a moment: If all of the NHL's best-laid plans work out ... if conditions in late July allow for it to happen ... if the postseason isn't scuttled by a second wave of COVID-19 or a slew of positive tests among the players ... it's going to be awesome.

I'm giving myself, and by proxy all of you, permission to feel excited about this for a moment. To ignore the stinking pile of laundry in the corner of the bedroom to admire how tidy the floor is. What are sports if not diversion? What are sports if not distraction? What are sports if not a reason to wallow in the imaginary for while?

Here are five reasons I'm legitimately excited for the 2019-20 restart (should it, you know, actually happen).

1. The greatest playoff tournament ever

Just over 77% of the NHL's teams are about to enter the postseason. That's a higher percentage than during the 12-year run of 16 out of 21 teams making the cut, before the San Jose Sharks began a second wave of NHL expansion in 1991.

That's quite a crowded party.

Now, imagine what kind of partygoer you would be if you have upward of four months to rest up before the all-night rager. Because outside of a few long-term injury cases, these are going to be 24 refreshed and healthy teams. (And rusty, but one hopes the three-week training camp and a couple of exhibition games helps that.) A fully loaded Colorado Avalanche team. The Carolina Hurricanes with Dougie Hamilton back. Look at the New York Islanders: They'll have Adam Pelech available for their blue line in the playoffs, having gone 25-10-3 with him and 10-13-7 without him in the regular season.

The term "best on best" gets thrown around a lot in hockey, usually in reference to the Olympics or what Canadians believed the World Cup of Hockey was supposed to be. But we've never had, in over 100 years of the National Hockey League, a postseason tournament with this many teams that are this rested and ready. The journey to win Stanley Cup has never been this difficult. It's the tournament of tournaments.

(Which is the reason the winner should have an asterisk next to its name to connote that journey. But thanks to lockout seasons and Barry Bonds, asterisks have come to signify dubious achievement rather than extraordinary circumstances.)

I like this playoff format. I don't love it. The sweet spot would have been 22 teams. And it bugs me that the higher-seeded teams don't have any discernible advantages. That's why I sympathize with the Hurricanes, who voted against the format. As coach Rod Brind'Amour told us on the ESPN On Ice podcast this week: "What was the 68 games we played for? What did we grind for? The bulk of the season was completed, and they just threw that out."

The Hurricanes were fond of a round-robin tournament that would have weighted their regular-season achievement more highly. If that was going to be too complicated to pull off, how about this: Start each series with the higher seed owning a 1-0 lead.

Instead, we get an almost even playing field for the haves and have-nots. In a five-game sprint. There will be upsets. More than a few.

But the play-in round has its virtues. The Hurricanes-Rangers series could be tremendous, given the Rangers were 4-0-0 against the Canes this season. The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets are going to be contentious -- give Columbus coach John Tortorella an underdog story to tell, and he'll spin it like no other. The Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers are going to be ridiculous, fire-wagon hockey. The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets could be a brutal Smythe Division throwback. The way the Minnesota Wild were playing before the regular season ended, taking on a healthy yet green Vancouver Canucks team might be the best matchup of the entire qualifying round.

The top-four-seed round-robin tournament is, frankly, hilarious. The NHL had its most successful teams whining about a bye, saying they wanted significant games before the round of 16 because they watched a lackadaisical Lightning team get eaten alive by Columbus last spring. So the NHL is like, "You want significant games? How about the Flyers and Stars can both earn the top seeds in their conferences if they go 3-0 in round-robin play. That significant enough for you?"

There's something beautifully petty about the NHL threatening a 12-point jump in the standings as a way to appease these franchises.

Flaws and all, it's a fun playoff format that hopefully serves as a Trojan horse for playoff expansion in subsequent seasons. More teams, more fun. More teams, more money. For them and for us.

2. Betting like you've never seen before

The first days of the NCAA men's basketball tournament are two of the best days in any gambler's year. Calling it "March Madness" is such an understatement: multitudes of games, starting around lunchtime, continuing deep into the evening. Ladies and gentlemen, start your wagers.

I've long advocated for the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs to follow that model as a celebration of the postseason. It sounds like I'm going to get an entire opening round of that postseason played all day long, during a live sports vacuum on television. Ladies and gentlemen, again, start your wagers.

As you know, hockey isn't exactly the state lottery when it comes to popularity for bettors. But at a time when people are wagering on the outcomes of simulated sports video games, one imagines the betting community would at least sample the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially with games staggered, March Madness-style.

Heck, bring on the exotic prop bets tailored to this tournament: over/under on the number of expletives caught on live mics in empty arenas; will commissioner Gary Bettman get booed by someone in an empty arena during the Cup presentation? And so on.

This could be the most important moment for the NHL and gambling since the Golden Knights arrived in Las Vegas. We would have gone with "since puck and player tracking," but ... well, maybe next season.

3. The most unfair, and hence most hilarious, draft lottery ever

When he was tasked with explaining the draft lottery, Bettman should have used one of those walls with photos connected by string, like the one Carrie Mathison used to track terror cells on "Homeland."

In summary: There are two lotteries. One of them, on June 26, is for the seven teams that were so bad that they couldn't qualify for a postseason that involved over 77% of the league's teams, plus eight "placeholders" for teams that are in the qualifying round. The first three picks will be determined. If any of the "placeholder" teams wins a draw for a top-three pick, then we have a second lottery after the qualification round, with only the teams that lose in the qualification round, and the winner of that gets the "placeholder" spot.

Depending on how the NHL decides to manage conditional picks -- more on that in the "winners and losers" section below -- there's a non-zero chance that the Pittsburgh Penguins (.623 points percentage), Edmonton Oilers (.585) and Toronto Maple Leafs (.579) could own the first three picks in draft lottery. Which is absolutely absurd and deleterious to the stated objective of the entry draft as a benefit to needy teams.

It's also utterly comical when you consider the brief history of the NHL's negotiation on the 2020 draft. The league wanted to hold it before the season was restarted. It got pushback from the general managers over the 0.001% chance that the same team could win the lottery and win the Stanley Cup.

"OK," the NHL said, "how about instead we hold one lottery for the really bad teams and then another one for the teams eliminated in the qualification round, thus ensuring that no team can win the first overall pick and the Stanley Cup in the same year?"

"Yes!" the general managers proclaimed. "That would be a fair and just thing to do!"

"Oh, one more thing," the NHL said. "There's now a chance the Edmonton Oilers, the fifth-best team in the West, could draft Alexis Lafrenire to play with Connor McDavid for the next 15 years (sinister laughing)."

There are episodes of "Black Mirror" that strive and fail to reach this level of "be careful what you wish for."

4. The Stanley Cup playoffs as Olympic Village

Media critic Bryan Curtis of "The Press Box" podcast made a great point the other day: The best beat in the entire NBA is going to be the reporter who stations themself at the hotel bar after the day's games are done. Considering that we're going to have 12 NHL teams cloistered within a small radius of a "hub" city arena, and players are already expressing a desire not to be cooped up in a hotel room for two months, those hotel bars are going to look like All-Star Weekend velvet-rope player parties.

I've covered four Olympics. One of my favorite beats is finding stories that come from the Olympic Village, where isolated athletes with lots of downtime find very strange (and sometimes salacious) ways with which to pass it. I can't even imagine what the two de facto NHL Olympic Villages in the "hubs" are going to look like with athletes who are five months removed from the road.

At best, inter-team Mario Kart tournaments in the largest suite they can find. At worst, hotel bedding repurposed as togas. In any case, this is going to be a real challenge for social distancing, folks.

5. The empty-arena blank canvas

The NHL is going to return in empty arenas. This much is clear. There might be limited fans at baseball games and football games around the time the NHL restarts its season, but the "hubs" are going to be made-for-television events that are without fans.

Which is rough for anyone who holds up the Stanley Cup playoffs as the greatest tournament in sports for the intensity and environment the fans provide. Which is why Steve Mayer, the NHL's chief content officer and chief visionary, has his work cut out for him.

"You have to take out the fact that there's nobody in the stands," Mayer told the NHL's "@TheRink" podcast. "I've watched the games. We've seen cardboard cutouts in the stands. We've even seen blow-up dolls. Are you kidding me?"

For a glimpse at what the NHL will attempt to do with this blank canvas, look to what Mayer has done with the outdoor game aesthetics. "We have a lot of experience in changing the environment that people are used to. You walk into one of our outdoor games, and you're used to seeing a football field. I'm taking the approach that you're used to seeing people in seats and now -- poof! -- there are no more people in seats. So what are we now covering up? And how do you make it super cool?" he said.

Mayer said the empty arenas will have "an environment that will change from game to game. An environment that's vibrant in colors." Here's what else we hope they have:

  • Unfettered video and audio access to players and camera angles we've never witnessed before in a live game, including drone shots. Make these broadcasts as close to HBO's "24/7" as possible. With a delay for censoring, of course.
  • Take a page from All Elite Wrestling during its quarantine shows and have the small army of black aces (minor leaguers called up once their season ended) and team staffers sit in the stands to cheer on their teams and chirp at their opponents, like a Greek chorus of scratches.
  • We wouldn't be opposed to in-arena pyro and fireworks. Just sayin'.

No one knows what it's going to look like. No one knows how intense these games will or will not be, or what Stanley Cup champion or draft lottery winners these new mechanisms are going to ultimately produce. It's to the NHL's credit that we can revel in these mysteries and marinate in the quaint speculation of playoff sports.

They earned the moment. They won the spotlight. Now comes the hard part: How on earth are they going to make it happen?

Hockey Brain: "Pipe down, Cynical Brain. Hockey's comin' back!"

Jersey Fouls

A classic from the archives, from reader Eric N.:

Memo to other inkers: Always get a retired number on your back, lest you one day have to place several strips of electrical tape over the top of your shoulders to write in another player's name after a trade. Because getting that tape off your back is ... yikes. (Really nice tat here, too.)

Top three lingering questions about the qualification round

1. Are play-in games actually playoff games? Gary Bettman says they aren't, and that the round of 16 is the playoffs. Vegas sportsbooks briefly said they are, and then reversed course. For the purposes of satisfying local contractual obligations to broadcast partners and sponsors, they aren't. For the purposes of compiling stats so players can reach postseason bonuses, they might be. To the casual fan who heard "a 24-team playoff format," they probably are. When you consider it's a five-game series between seeded teams after Bettman declared the regular season completed ... I mean, how can you not?

2. If the play-in games aren't playoff games, wither conditional picks? The Pittsburgh Penguins owe the Minnesota Wild a first-round pick for the Jason Zucker trade. If Pittsburgh misses the 2020 playoffs, the Penguins have the option to send their 2021 first-round pick to the Wild instead. They were fifth in the conference with a 92% chance of making the postseason when the season was halted on March 12, per Money Puck. Yet if they lose to Montreal in the "qualification round," they won't be a playoff team? See also Vancouver's first-round pick, owned by the Devils.

3. Who do I vote for the Hart Trophy? As regular readers of this space know, I have a dogmatic obligation to selecting Hart Trophy winners with the "gotta be in it to win it" caveat. Is Leon Draisaitl in it? Is Connor Hellebuyck in it? Is Artemi Panarin? I'm pretty sure Nathan MacKinnon was always going to be in it, at 100% certainty for a postseason berth, again via Money Puck. Ditto David Pastrnak. If the qualification rounds aren't the playoffs, do we vote before or after them? Will this season restart format be the undoing of my undying commitment to this bit?

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Fantastic interview with Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour this week on the podcast, going in-depth about the "return to play" plans and his feelings on the playoff format. Plus, we break down all the ins and outs of the postseason and draft plans. Great stuff. Listen, rate and subscribe here.

Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Gary Bettman

There are a lot of people outside the hockey bubble who were impressed -- in some cases astonished -- that the NHL was the pro sports league that released its return-to-play format first, given its contentious history in labor talks. The credit goes to Bettman and his staff, who were forward-thinking and flexible in their planning. This week was the moment the NHL was looking for, and Bettman was, as usual, a driving force in earning it.

Loser: Public transportation

The NHL's memo on the reopening of training facilities says that any player traveling by commercial air or rail back to their team's home city must serve a two-week self-quarantine period after arriving there, before they can be reunited with their teammates. So fire up those private jets, billionaire team owners ...

Winner: Jason Botterill

We would not have taken odds on Botterill returning as Buffalo Sabres general manager, but Kim and Terry Pegula announced he was returning for a fourth season for the sake of continuity. "I realize maybe it's not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right," Kim Pegula told the AP. "We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in." Um, respectfully: Show your work. Sabres fans deserve to see some of that information.

Losers: Detroit Red Wings

First, the NHL opts for a more traditional draft lottery format instead of one of the other options that could have gotten Detroit around 57% odds for getting the first overall pick. Then there was the news that Jeff Blashill will return next season, which no doubt didn't set well with all Wings fans.

Winner: Montreal Canadiens

They're a .500 team that had a 0.2% chance of making the playoffs, and now they're three wins away from making the round of 16. If the playoffs are bracketed, that means they'll face the No. 4 seed in the East if they get by the Penguins. If they don't get by the Penguins and a "placeholder" spot wins one of the draft lotteries, they'll have an equal chance with seven other teams of grabbing it. Again: This team was 10 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games left.

Loser: Playoff teams

I mean, you'd think the teams that had earned playoff positions at the time of the pause would get more benefit than being forced to play a five-game series against a team that doesn't belong in the postseason, aside from a home-bench advantage and a slightly larger dressing room.

Puck Headlines

The race is on to save the Alabama Huntsville hockey program, as donations are pushing toward their $500,000 goal.

Confusing news on the Kirill Kaprizov front for the Minnesota Wild.

The KHL is back in action on Sept. 2, apparently.

Tom Dundon on the NHL season restart and the Hurricanes' arena lease plans: "I think the idea of fairness and trying to get everybody involved, and getting more games before the playoffs, I think everybody thought that was a good idea. We were hoping that we'd have some upside if we came back to play, that we could improve our seed. So that was what we were trying to figure out, was there a solution where you had upside and downside and this solution, some people have upside, some have downside and some sort of stay neutral. That was what they decided and so that's what we'll go with."

Ed Belfour is selling his car for $1.2 million.

"Could we start [next season] with the Winter Classic? Anything's possible." Oh Gary Bettman, you tease.

Winners and losers of the NHL's draft lottery solution.

Ken Campbell applauds the NHL for saying expanded playoffs are a one-season proposition. "Not only does a hard 16-team playoff race make for a better regular season and more compelling playoff races that routinely go to the last couple of days of the campaign, but it also makes for a better playoff. The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in professional sports for a reason. Good on the NHL for ensuring it remains that way."

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

"We'd love to be a hockey hub, NHL, but don't expect us to change the rules for the game to return."

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

We broke down the classic "Seinfeld" episode "The Face Painter." Gotta support the team.

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