Reports: NHL may skip rest of regular season, jump to 24-team playoff format

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Could the NHL go with a plan to skip the regular season and jump to a 24-team playoff format if play resumes? That idea is at least gathering steam among many other options, according to a wide array of reporters (including TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, and the New York Post’s Larry Brooks).

How a 24-team playoff format might work for the NHL

Brooks and Friedman note that even narrowing things down to 24 teams could be a bit tricky. Brooks quickly summarizes a couple 24-team scenarios:

The format of a 24-team tournament has not yet been established. But if the league goes with the top 12 teams in each conference, that would include every club at NHL .500 or better when play stopped on March 11. That structure would include the Rangers and Chicago.

If the league were for some reason to go with the six top teams in each division — the NHL hasn’t had a division-based playoff system since 1992-93 — that would mean that the Sabres (.493) would replace the Rangers (.564) and the Ducks (.472) would replace the Blackhawks (.514).

During TSN’s Insider Trading, LeBrun noted that “nothing is decided,” and that a 24-team playoff format is “not for everyone.”

As Dreger notes, the “play-in” portion could help narrow down what would feel like a bloated 24-team field. If the Rangers/Sabres/Blackhawks/etc. needed to play into such a spot, it would make their berths feel more “earned.”

In late March, I espoused some of the virtues of at least certain play-in elements. But, frankly, the best part of this proposal would be that the NHL’s lottery-fodder teams wouldn’t need to go through the motions.

It’s bad enough to play meaningless games in a dangerous sport like hockey. Imagine the stress and risk of playing out the string during this pandemic? We could see shades of that in the Kings shutting down Jeff Carter for the season.

Cutting off the regular season would also make it more feasible to hold a lottery and thus a June draft. That … is a debate for another time, or for angry people on social media.

As that Insider Trading segment notes, the NHL’s also considering 16-team and 20-team formats, not just 24.

Dizzying logistical concerns for a possible NHL return

For those of us who are sports and hockey-starved, we might feel like an anonymous exec telling Friedman that they’d be willing to play “on Jupiter.” But if you dig into the day-to-day details, the situation gets fuzzier.

Consider just some of the factors the NHL must mull over:

  • As an international league, the NHL wouldn’t just need to worry about state-by-state restrictions. Traveling to Canada and the U.S. could present obstacles, even with “hub” formats.
  • The NHL hopes to play things right in case there’s a “Phase 2” of outbreaks, with a December start for 2020-21 as one option. Threading that needle would be easier said than done, though, especially if a 24-team playoff format required many NHL postseason games.
  • The sheer scale of keeping things clean and safe is pretty mind-boggling. During that TSN Insider Trading segment, Frank Seravalli provided fascinating insight on the league’s “cost-benefit analysis.” If daily testing would be necessary, Seravalli said some wonder if it would cost teams “millions, or even tens of millions.” One estimate indicated that sanitizing locker rooms would cost about $1,500 per day.
  • Getting into the safety issue once again, what about older staffers, including coaches? Their risks would be heightened.
  • Local TV commitments are another brow-furrowing element.
  • Speaking of TV, Friedman went over many of the intriguing elements of potentially broadcasting games with empty arenas. Could a lack of crowd open the door for creative camera angles? Should a DJ add to the mood? Might teams pipe in crowd noise as if “Goldberg” was in the building?

Overall, it’s pretty staggering to ponder the many logistical challenges.

On the other hand, not playing means massive financial losses, and bountiful boredom. These are challenging times, and pulling off a 24-team playoff format (or any format) wouldn’t be easy. What do you think about the general concept, though?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.