By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NHL’s 2019-20 regular season is over. Next up: A postseason like no other.
That was the message delivered by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday afternoon, as he laid out what the NHL hopes to do in the coming months. “Hopes” remains the key word, as none of the NHL’s plan is possible if the league (and the country, for that matter) can’t hold its postseason safely, with strict testing protocols and plans in place to prevent the coronavirus from derailing the whole situation.
The long and short of the announcement stated that 24 teams will resume play, while seven teams are done for the year. There will be a play-in round to qualify for the first round of the playoffs, played among the fifth through 12th seeds in each conference. The top four seeds get automatic bids to the first round, though they will all play each other in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding.
For 24 teams, this is generally good news. Montreal made out the best, as they were 10 points out of a playoff spot with just nine games left, needing to jump past four teams. Boston made out the worst, having been head and shoulders better than the rest of the league during the year, while now having to fight for the top seed. But for the most part, the field is as fair as possible.
Here’s a deeper look at everything that this playoff format means for the Bruins.
–The round robin group in the Eastern Conference will include Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia. The regular season overtime/shootout rules will be in effect for these games, so there won’t be any marathon triple-OT sessions for anyone involved. If there’s a tie at the end of the round robin, then regular-season point percentage will be used as the tiebreaker.
Here’s how Boston fared vs. the other three teams this year:
vs. Tampa Bay: 1-2-0
vs. Washington: 1-1-1
vs. Philadelphia: 1-0-2
The 3-3-3 record isn’t particularly impressive, but every game except for one (a 7-3 win over Washington) has been decided by one or two goals. That includes four games decided by a shootout.
The team with the best record coming out of that round robin will get the top seed. That team will presumably play the lowest remaining seed, though the exact setup of that first round was not announced.
–The best-of-five series in the play-in round are as follows:
No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal
No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 NY Rangers
No. 7 NY Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida
No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus
That puts the importance of the round robin in perspective. Having three bad games vs. Tampa/Philly/Washington could land the Bruins a first-round date with the Penguins. That’s less appetizing than, say, the Leafs or the Islanders.
It’s in that area where some Bruins fans may take offense to the format. The work done over 70 games could get washed away by three “get back in shape” games vs. the other top teams in the conference.
It’s a fair criticism, but really, there has to be something at stake when the top teams in the conference play each other. And really, Pittsburgh has a much more serious gripe, as they had 86 points in just 69 games played this season, but they have to now risk elimination before even getting to play in the first round of the playoffs. Same goes for Edmonton in the West, as the Oilers had 83 points in 71 games and now have to risk their playoff lives in a rusty best-of-five against the Blackhawks (72 points in 70 games). It’s not ideal.
–Really, there was no perfect plan that would make everyone happy. Teams on the bubble would have felt robbed of a chance to make the playoffs if they were excluded, and so some adjustments need to be made.
It’s important to remember, too, that this is the NHL. It’s probably best to not get too hung up on seeding. The Tampa Bay Lightning last year were one of the best regular-season teams of all time. In history. That’s not hyperbole. At all.
That same Lightning team got swept in the first round by Columbus — a Blue Jackets team that didn’t even make it past Boston in the second round. Upsets are the norm, even when home ice is involved. With all teams playing in the same city now, the seeding matters much, much less to how a team can figure out how to find its groove quickly and start playing good hockey. In that sense, it’s really no different from a normal postseason.
–If you were wondering which playoff matchups we WON’T be getting, here’s how the East playoffs would’ve looked if the league jumped straight into postseason mode.
1. Boston vs. WC Columbus
2. Tampa Bay vs. 3. Toronto
1. Washington vs. WC Carolina
2. Philadelphia vs. 3 Pittsburgh
From that perspective, the Bruins might … kind of luck out by avoiding Columbus. Boston went 0-1-1 vs. the Blue Jackets this year, and they were shut out 3-0 by Elvis Merzlikins in their last meeting.
–Bettman only confirmed that the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series. That means that one or potentially two playoff rounds could be best-of-five. That figures to be rather significant. Consider that last year, Boston trailed Toronto 3-2 in the first round before ultimately winning in seven and eventually making it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. That loooooong run would have been extinguished before it really began.
That’s just a hypothetical, imaginary past scenario. But the point is, if that first round (or first two rounds) are best-of-five series, then teams can’t afford to wait around. The always-intense NHL playoffs will be ratcheted up several notches. (From an entertainment standpoint, that’s not the worst thing. If you’re one of the involved teams, the pressure is immense.)
–Regular season awards will be coming for Bruins players. David Pastrnak becomes the first Bruin to ever win the Rocket Richard Trophy, an honor he’ll be sharing with Alex Ovechkin. Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak have earned the William M. Jennings Trophy, and Rask should be the Vezina winner. Much more on all of that can be found here.
–This is an aside … but maybe the NHL can use this as an opportunity to reconfigure its playoff format again. Have you ever tried explaining the NHL playoff process to casual fans who only sort of/kind of care about the sport? Well, you have four divisions, and you take the top three teams in each division, they’re in the playoffs. The second and third seeds from each division play each other, while the top seed in each division plays a wild card team, which could be any team from the conference. The top seed with the better record plays the lower wild card, while the other divisional winner plays the higher-seeded wild card team. Those wild card teams join the division of whichever team they’re playing, and it’s a bracket format until the conference finals. Oh and if you need to get into tiebreakers, make sure you catch up on your ROW. That’s important. It’s simple, really.
People end up saying, “OK … so who is Team X playing?” It’s sloppy. Perhaps getting back to strictly a conference-based postseason ends up being a good thing for a sport that needlessly complicated things a few years ago.
–If you were wondering where the playoffs might take place, the league listed 10 possibilities. It doesn’t seem as though the league has decided yet.
Assuming that the Eastern Conference will hunker down in an Eastern Conference city, the possibilities for Boston would be Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. There’s nothing wrong with those places, but in terms of general sweetness (a technical term), Western Conference teams may luck out a bit more if they end up in L.A., Vegas, Chicago, Dallas, or Vancouver.
Keeping the entirety of the NHL locked up in Columbus and Edmonton would be pretty funny, though.
(Then again, deputy commissioner Bill Daly seemed to indicate that teams won’t be allowed to play in their home cities? So maybe the East goes West and the West goes East? Difficult to say.)
–The Bruins and Golden Knights are considered the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Both teams were given +550 odds to win it all by William Hill Sportsbook. Caesars has the Bruins at 6-to-1, with the Golden Knights and Lightning holding the same odds. Other books mix it up a bit, but the Bruins remain at the top.
Updated Odds to win 2020 Stanley Cup 📊
+600: Bruins, Lightning
+3000: Maple Leafs
+3500: Flames, Canucks
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) May 27, 2020
This of course means very little regarding what will actually happen on the ice.
In more fun odds news, some value buys (Columbus at +7500, perhaps) could make the summer and fall very fun for some folks.
–As for timing, everything is TBD, based on the virus, really. But if things go well, Bettman anticipates that training camps could open in early July, and the games could begin in late July. That would necessitate games being played through August and September, and likely into October.
As for next season, the NHL plans to play a full 82-game schedule. It just may start a little later.
“We believe 2020-21 will be played in its entirety, the way we play a normal season,” Bettman said. “There’s no magic to starting in October. Our buildings, our markets can handle it. We could start in November. We could start in December. We could start at the beginning of January if we have to. We’re going to be playing over the summer this year, so the answer is we’ll get through this season and we’ll make sure there’s enough of a pause between the end of this season and next, and then we’ll start up again. We will have to deal with that probably in a couple months because we have to start working on a schedule, but we’re prepared to defer or delay the start of the 2020-21 season by at least, if we need to, a couple months.”
Again, this is all dependent on the league being able to pull this off without the virus disrupting everything.
“[NHL medical advisors’] thought process at this point in time is that one single positive [test], depending on the circumstances, should not necessarily shut the whole operation down,” Daly said. “Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak and that will affect our ability to continue playing, but a single positive test or isolated positive test throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.”
–Can they pull it off? We’ll see. But the NHL at least has a plan in place, and we all have some hope that we’ll get to see Lord Stanley’s Cup listed this coming fall. In a hockey-starved and complicated world, that’s all we can really ask for.