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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.