Roundtable: Playing out rest of NHL season; 2019-20 memories

Alex Ovechkin 700th goal Capitals celebrate
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Should the NHL return to playing games in a timely matter — a very big unknown at the moment — how would you play out the rest of regular season and/or the playoffs?

SEAN: A unique situation calls for a unique solution. Even if regular season games are able to be played, there may not be time for a typical two-month playoff schedule — unless you’re keen on things potentially going deep into the summer.

Depending how the league resumes its schedule, let’s take the top 10 teams in points or points percentage in each conference. The bottom four teams would play in a one-game play-in playoff game with the winners playing the two best teams in the conference. From there, we’re back into brackets with re-seeding happening in Round 2. 

The change here is that series lengths would be shortened. The opening two rounds are best-of-three with a 1-2 format and the final two games of the series played on back-to-back days. The conference final is best-of-five in a 2-3 format — again, back-to-backs and a day off before a potential Game 5 — and the Stanley Cup Final remains a best-of-seven with a 2-3-2 format. (All dependent on arena availabilities, of course.)

Let’s just play hockey soon, please!

JAMES: To avoid bleeding out too much of 2020-21, jump straight to the playoffs … well, after a quick, attention-grabbing detour.

To avoid being far too kind to teams who finished in the wild-card positions when the game of musical chairs got cut short abruptly by a record scratch, I think a “play-in” situation would be fairest.

Basically, if you look at each conference, there are the two wild-card teams, at least two bubble teams right there with them, and two other teams somewhere floating in the distance. You could form an interesting little NFL-like elimination tournament with byes. Let me explain.

Collect those six teams per conference to create two elimination bubble tournaments for two wild card spots in each conference.

  • The top two wild cards from each conference get a “bye” to the second round in separate brackets.
  • Top wild cards could be who finished in the WC positions at the time of the pause. That said, it might be more fair if the top seeds were based on points percentage. Either way, determine two byes for each conference. (Let’s assume that business would be mostly as usual otherwise, aka that teams are traveling to different cities for games. One could imagine a scenario where the league would instead want to limit travel even more … but let’s just assume business close to usual.)
  • Round 1: third I bubble team hosts the sixth bubble team, while the fourth hosts the fifth.
  • Round 2: winner of third/sixth bubble team travels to face first bubble team, winner of fourth/fifth goes on the road against second.
  • Playoffs begin with two wild cards per conference who seem to have “earned it,” while also providing grab-your-popcorn made for TV drama. Also, the teams who did the painstaking work of getting one of their division’s top three seeds get to shake off the rust and avoid injuries.

This isn’t perfect, mind you. Chicago and especially Montreal would be extraordinarily lucky for this break. One might instead lean toward, say, having four bubble teams face off for the two spots (basically boiling it down from two elimination rounds to one). That’s “cleaner,” but wouldn’t be fair to, say, the Panthers or Rangers.

ADAM: The longer this goes on the harder it is going to be to fit in more regular season games, play a full postseason, and then have anything that even resembles a normal offseason to give players a proper rest before starting another 82-game season next fall.

To me, there are only a couple of options here.

The first one is that, assuming we can get started again in a timely manner, you just scrap the regular season. You take the normal playoff teams (top three teams in each division plus the two wild cards) based on points percentage, give them a week or two to practice and get back closer to game shape, and you begin the playoffs. That is unfair to the bubble teams, yes, but if we are being realistic here the standings are probably not going to change that much in the regular season games that were remaining.

The other option is that if you insist on playing more regular season games to make it fair for everyone in the playoff race, you adjust the playoff schedule, maybe taking the first (and maybe even second) rounds from a best-of-seven, to a best-of five. Or maybe make the first-round a best-of-three. Not ideal for anyone, and certainly not something I want to see full-time in the future, but this is a rare circumstance that no one saw happening.

JOEY: I just don’t see how you can miss two months of action, come back, have training camp and then play out the rest of the regular season. I don’t think the league has enough time to do that. Come in, play an exhibition game or two and then you jump right into the playoffs (if they’re insistent on having a champion this year). Instead of having a regular season and shortening each playoff series, just jump into the playoffs.

How would you go about deciding who gets in and who doesn’t? Either go with points percentage or make sure the top 12 teams in each conference have a shot at a playoff spot. Technically, the top 12 teams still had at least a small percentage of making the playoffs. Start the postseason with play-in games and then jump right into it when you get down to eight teams in each conference.

My suggested playoff format would work like this:

12th seed vs. 9th seed
11th seed vs. 10th seed.
Lowest seed remaining vs. 7th seed
Highest seed remaining vs. 8th seed.

The winner of those two matchups get to qualify as the Wild Card teams.

I realize that giving teams like Montreal and Chicago a shot at making the playoffs isn’t fair or ideal, but you have to make the numbers work somehow, and having 12 teams makes sense. Neither of the current Wild Card teams in each conference were guaranteed to make the playoffs, so it’s not like they’re being totally robbed by this format I’m proposing.

Once the “play-in round” is over, then you have the playoffs like you would normally have them.

SCOTT: Based on the latest CDC recommendations, we are at least two months away from returning to action. There will be a severe time crunch to get games in without impacting the 2020-21 season too severely. In addition, there needs to be time for the offseason activities such as the NHL Draft and free agency.

There are five teams in each conference that are above 82 points.

In the East, there should be a play-in game/series between the Penguins and Flyers. In the West, the Oilers should host the Stars. This could be a best of three series if time permits, with the other teams skating in exhibition games to get warmed up.

After the opening-round series are decided, the four teams remaining in each conference will participate in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It is tough to imagine a scenario where we will be able to witness a postseason that lasts two-plus months, but this concept allows the NHL to generate playoff revenue and award the Stanley Cup.

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What’s your favorite memory so far of the 2019-20 NHL season?

SEAN: I’m a sucker for a feel-good story and we could certainly use some of those at the moment. Two that stood out to me this season happened a few weeks apart in February.

First, Stephen Johns missed 22 months dealing with post-traumatic headaches. He returned Feb. 3 and scored in his first game back. Making the moment all the more sweeter was that his parents were in attendance for that Stars win at Madison Square Garden.

Then you had the emotional Ottawa return for Bobby Ryan on Feb. 27. It was only his second game back since completing the NHL/NHL Players’ Association assistance program for alcohol addiction. That’s enough of a feel-good moment right there, but the Senators forward had other ideas.

During a 5-2 win over the Canucks, Ryan recorded a hat trick, with two of the three goals coming in the final 2:08 of the game.

JAMES: I racked my brain trying to debate the merits of EBUG vs. a goalie scoring a goal vs. Brad Marchand biffing a shootout chance, and then I realized I was the one who biffed it. Of course my favorite moment of 2019-20 was the Matthew Tkachuk vs. Zack Kassian feud.

I’m not necessarily the most blood-and-guts hockey fan. The danger of the sport has its place, but to me, it really just heightens the incredible skill involved. The Connor McDavids of the world soar down the ice and make balletic magic happen while walking a tightrope of injury. That’s more thrilling than sloppy fights between two people who might be damaging their brains.

But the Kassian – Tkachuk feud was so much more than Kassian grotesquely rag-dolling Tkachuk around.

There were the Tkachuk hits, and the dopey machismo of him telling Kassian to get off the tracks if he didn’t like it.

It’s all amplified by the Battle of Alberta, and two division rivals fighting over relevant playoff positioning.

The trash talking was absolutely glorious, from Tkachuk’s barbs to Kassian’s ominous threats. Let’s not forget that Tkachuk is a legit two-way All-Star, and while Kassian isn’t in Tkachuk’s league, he can still play enough to flirt with keeping up with Tkachuk on a night where Kassian’s puck luck is booming.

The charitable chicanery of the Tkachuk billboard in Edmonton really sealed the deal, though. Glorious stuff, and this took me so long that I might need to put up a billboard to remind myself not to forget that splendor so easily.

(Simpler times, eh?)

ADAM: Have to go with Andrei Svechnikov bringing the lacrosse goal to the NHL, and then doing it again. I always liked Svechnikov because I think he has a chance to be a superstar in the league and is going to eventually help the Carolina Hurricanes do great things.

Then he went and did that.

Critics will say it is not that complicated of a move and that any NHL player can pull it off. That may very well be true. But no one ever had the courage to actually do it. Then he did it again.

JOEY: It has to be Alex Ovechkin’s chase for 700 goals. There’s no guarantee that we’ll see anyone else hit that number and if they do, it won’t happen anytime soon. It was a great story line. Everyone across the hockey world was checking in, paying special attention to Ovechkin and the Capitals. His run has also sparked a debate about whether Wayne Gretzky is the greatest goal scorer of all-time. I’ve also caught myself trying to do the math when it comes to Ovechkin possibly being the first to 900 goals. It was a great story and I’m glad to see he managed to reach the milestone before the NHL went on its pause.

SCOTT: The race between Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes for the Calder Trophy has been fascinating to watch this season. Traditionally, defensemen need more time to round out their game and adjust to the level of competition in the NHL. Both Makar and Hughes have each tallied 50 or more points and have had enormous impacts on their respective NHL clubs.

Adam Fox is also another young blueliner playing big minutes for the New York Rangers. He would be in the rookie-of-the-year conversation, but Makar and Hughes have been a clear step above.

All three skaters played hockey at the collegiate level prior to this season and have begun to pave the way for more NCAA athletes to get opportunities to jump right to the professional level.

The NHL could potentially get even younger if teenage defenseman are able to influence the game as much as Makar, Hughes and Fox have during their inaugural seasons.

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