2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Our Line Starts podcast: Bettman’s update on NHL’s potential return

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In this episode, Liam McHugh, Brian Boucher, and Patrick Sharp react to Gary Bettman’s interview with Mike Tirico from Tuesday afternoon. Bettman addressed the conference call he and other sports commissioners had over the weekend with President Trump, and also said “nothing has been ruled out” regarding a possible return to action. Plus, Boucher and Sharp remember playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

0:40-3:25 Boucher and Sharp give their first playoff memory
3:25-14:40 Mike Tirico interviews Gary Bettman
14:40-17:20 Most fair way to build 16-team playoff right now?
18:00-24:50 For or against playoff games at a neutral site?

[MORE: Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely]

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely

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It’s Wednesday, April 8 and tonight we should have been parking ourselves in front of our televisions or gathering inside hockey rinks across the U.S. and Canada to watch playoff hockey.

Instead, we wait. We don’t know when the NHL will resume its 2019-20 schedule and we don’t know how they will complete it if playing out the regular season isn’t an option. Since the NHL pause on March 12,  various formats thrown out, garnering a myriad of responses. If time prevents the league from holding a normal postseason, they’ll have to be creative.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told Mike Tirico on NBCSN’s Lunch Talk Live Tuesday. “We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light — and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well.”

So what are possibly looking at for a right-to-the-playoffs scenario?

Points percentage

Here are your Round 1 playoff matchups if points percentage was to determine the eight teams in each conference:

Bruins vs. Islanders
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Flyers vs. Penguins

Blues vs. Flames
Avalanche vs. Stars
Golden Knight vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Canucks

There are some juicy pairings in that lot, but what of those teams who missed the cut? Surely the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Panthers, Jets, Wild, and Coyotes would like to see the field expanded considering the unique situation we find ourselves in.

“I don’t think it would be right if we’re left out,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. “We’re close to a playoff spot and have 13 games left. We just started playing as well as we did before the All-Star break, the bye week. We were feeling pretty good, playing with confidence.”

If you stick with the traditional series format, the timing of everything would affect series lengths. Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have been vocal about not having the 2020-21 season interrupted, so if we’re talking about July or August playoff hockey, we can’t have four rounds of best-of-sevens.

Tournament

P.K. Subban said he’d love to see a 31-team tournament to decide the 2020 Stanley Cup winner — and why wouldn’t he when you glance at the Devils’ place in the Eastern Conference standings. But while including every team in the league isn’t the best idea, using this opportunity to be different opens the door for that kind of format if there isn’t time for a full four rounds of playoffs.

Like the points percentage idea, a tournament would require some sort of cut off point to fill the field. Do you forget conferences and just go with an overall Sweet 16 and best-of-three series? Would it be ideal to include 24 teams and work in byes for those atop the standings?

Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly told NHL.com’s The Rink podcast that he wants a full four-round playoff.

“I know you can do it in a different way, but if it was up to me, from my time being in the League and other guys I’ve talked to on the team, we really need to protect the integrity of the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s a whole other season in its own so I think it’s got to be a full, best-of-7 for four rounds, for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how they make that work, how you can condense it to still give the teams fighting for a wild card a chance, but I think you have to have the full thing.

“It’ll be tough and obviously I don’t have all the answers, but I feel it really protects the integrity of the Stanley Cup. It is extremely difficult. Having to beat a team four times is not an easy thing to do, and I just feel we need to have that.”

Neutral sites

An NHL playoff or tournament set up with games played in either one city or multiple locations? That’s been discussed with locations such as Buffalo and Grand Forks, North Dakota serving as potential options. However many teams, isolated in a city, away from their families. The league would love the unique aspect to such a conclusion to a season, but would the players? 

As with the Major League Baseball idea that was floated on Tuesday or the NBA’s in Las Vegas, what would the logistics look like for the NHL? Would there be fans? How long of a period of time would the players and staff be away from their families in such a scenario? Will there be tests upon arrival? What if a player or staff member contracts the virus? Will there be an expansion of rosters?

And that’s just with the logistics involving the teams. What about the people working at the arena(s)? And should medical personnel be used in this case and not be assisting hospitals?

As Bettman said Tuesday, there’s too much uncertainty to have an idea when the NHL will be given a green light to resume games. The planning needs to be done for all situations once that happens, and more and more it’s looking like if playoffs do happen, it will be a unique format that wins out for this special circumstance.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: If NHL returns, could games take place in … North Dakota?

NHL 2019-20 North Dakota
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Elliotte Friedman details North Dakota as a possible host city in potential season resumption scenarios. Friedman notes that Ralph Engelstad Arena might work, in part because of the state’s low population density. The NHL should consider Engelstad’s controversies if they go probe deeper on a North Dakota plan, though. (Sportsnet)

• Bruce Garrioch expands on some of the issues the NHL and NHLPA are facing, stemming in part from Gary Bettman’s weekly conference call with the Board of Governors. Garrioch provides some interesting details about how players might try to limit the damage from big escrow challenges, and other issues that need to be cleared up. (Ottawa Sun)

• In the latest edition of his The Color of Hockey feature, William Douglas explores how Hockey Is For Everyone programs are helping rinks and schools adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. (NHL.com)

• Travis Yost analyzes the continued decline of “workhorse” goalies in the NHL. Yost shares some fascinating stats, including that Connor Hellebuyck and Carey Price are the only goalies to start 75 percent (or more) of their teams’ games in 2019-20. Could these trends eventually push No. 1 goalie salaries down, and backups’ cap hits up? Certainly plausible, and possibly more sensible than putting all your eggs in one goalie-shaped basket. (TSN)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger believes that Rasmus Dahlin‘s defensive game keeps going “up a notch.” Frankly, I’d argue that Dahlin’s ice time needs to go up multiple notches. After averaging 21:09 TOI per game as a rookie, Dahlin’s down by almost two minutes this season (19:18). While that climbed a bit toward the end of 2019-20, it’s baffling that Krueger hesitates to send Dahlin out on the ice at least as much as Dahlin was out there in 2018-19. Maybe such rave reviews will translate to more reps in year three? (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• You might say that I accused Krueger of under-coaching in the tidbit above. Barry Trotz, meanwhile, wonders if he over-coached his Islanders at times this season. (Newsday)

• John Barr compares 2019-20 attendance numbers to what we saw in previous seasons. Plenty of interesting graphs and charts to chew on if you’re interested in sellouts and other figures. (NHL to Seattle)

Connor McDavid and Gary Roberts teamed up for a video series to try to help kids find creative ways to stay fit indoors. Good stuff from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. (ESPN)

• Ranking the Nashville Predators’ jersey designs, from worst to best. Yes, mustard ranked low on the list. (Hockey By Design)

• Binging TV shows during the pause? Milan Lucic will provide staunch competition. He consumed Game of Thrones in just 19 days. That’s 73 episodes, and that wasn’t a 22-minute sitcom … although the travel logic of the latter episodes might’ve deserved a laugh track. (TSN)

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.

Golden Knights’ DeBoer not in favor of bye week (or tournament for top draft pick)

Peter DeBoer not in favor of bye week lottery tournament Golden Knights
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It sounds like Peter DeBoer isn’t fond of some outside-the-box hockey ideas for whenever play might resume. Specifically, DeBoer objected to a) a playoff format that would involve bye week(s) and b) a tournament to determine which team gets the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

DeBoer addressed those issues and more during a March 31 interview with ESPN on Ice’s Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. The Golden Knights’ head coach also reiterated to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun that he’s not in favor of a “bye” week-type setup on April 3 (sub required).

DeBoer: not in favor of a bye week/more than 16 NHL playoff teams

DeBoer told ESPN on Ice that he wants the Stanley Cup to be awarded in a way that the winning team wouldn’t need an “asterisk.”

Even so, he’d ask the NHL’s planners to thread the needle. DeBoer doesn’t want more than 16 teams in a playoff format, but also wants things to be fair. Around the 28-minute mark of the podcast, DeBoer indicated that he’d prefer sacrificing some rest if it meant that the Golden Knights would be less rusty in a postseason situation.

” … There’s a huge advantage to having played games,” DeBoer said.

Of course, DeBoer calls for a typical format with his Golden Knights ranked first in the Pacific Division. Would he feel the same way if Vegas was ranked outside of the wild card, but with games in hand, or some other fuzzy situation?

Even DeBoer hinted at seeing things differently if his team wasn’t in such a comfortable spot.

“I’m more in favour of the traditional format,” DeBoer said to LeBrun. “Although I understand that we’re not a bubble team and I’m sure for my good friend Paul Maurice (in Winnipeg) it’s different when you’re either just in or just out depending on whether they (use) points percentage or not. But yeah I prefer the traditional route.”

DeBoer shoots down tournament for the top pick

DeBoer made some great points to Kaplan and Wyshynski about the potential downsides of a hypothetical tournament to determine the top pick.

As a coach who’s been behind the bench for some lottery teams, DeBoer addressed the elephant in the room. When you’re suffering through a lousy season, you just want it to end as soon as possible.

Now, some would debate DeBoer’s assertion that fans might not have an “appetite” for a No. 1 pick tournament. Maybe that would be true for fans during a typical season, but under these circumstances, I’d imagine there would be a lot of interest to see a lottery tournament of sorts.

From fans, at least. It would be strange not just for the coaches, but also the players involved. After all, how much should a current player care about their team landing that draft’s top pick? Maybe a “core” player would see the value, but plenty of others 1) wonder if they’ll even play for that team much longer and 2) would view a better pick as a bigger threat to their spot.

There’d be serious cognitive dissonance to playing high-stakes games to possibly hurt your career. After all, a higher draft pick is that much more likely to push players down the depth chart, or off of it altogether. So DeBoer definitely makes some good points.

DeBoer backed up earlier comments made by Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan.

(Then again, players might warm up to the idea if … say, playing a lottery tournament cut down on their money lost from escrow. Just throwing it out there.)

More from DeBoer

That ESPN on Ice interview (from 26-minute mark to 38) is worth your time, as DeBoer also discusses:

  • Load management: DeBoer was asked the question if things get congested between a modified end to 2019-20 while getting in a full 82 games. His general takeaway is that, while not often using healthy scratches, teams already practice subtle load management.

(Personally, I still think NHL teams could do more, and smart ones might benefit in the long run.)

It’s one thing for Brad Marchand to land on such a list. But Cousins is funnier because … well, he might not always walk the walk. At least at the NHL level.

  • Among other things, DeBoer also spoke about the strange transition of becoming Golden Knights head coach after being fired by the hated Sharks. He seems to indicate that it wasn’t as awkward as one might think.

DeBoer gives us a lot to ponder thanks to those two interviews. Do you agree with DeBoer on avoiding a bye week and not having a No. 1 pick tournament?

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.

Crosby, Ovechkin fine if NHL chooses to go right to playoffs

We don’t know when or if the NHL will finish out the 2019-20 season. The coronavirus pandemic has put the final few weeks of the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs up in the air.

As we wait to see hockey again there have been lots of ideas about how the NHL should complete the season. Should teams play out their 12 or so regular season games? Should the league hold a play-in tournament for teams on the playoff bubble? On a video conference with reporters on Thursday, a few of the Metropolitan Division players weighed in.

“You try to get in as many games as you can, I think,” said Sidney Crosby of the third-place Penguins. “I wouldn’t mind starting right at the playoffs. I think there are a lot of guys in different situations. The more games you can play, the better. When it comes to the integrity of everything, that’s a big part of it.”

“It’s hard to tell, but it would be good to get a few games in before playoffs, especially for teams that are fighting for a spot in,” said Claude Giroux of the Flyers, whose recent surge put them a point behind the Capitals for first place. “You want to give everybody a fair chance, I’d say.”

”For, me of course, the more games we play, it’s going to be better for our fans and it’s going to be better for teams fighting for the playoffs. I’d rather start playoffs right away,” replied Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. “Sorry guys.”

There have been many suggestions for what the NHL should do, but the biggest obstacle remains the uncertainty of what lies ahead. All sports leagues around the world can do is monitor the situation and listen to the medical experts for when it’s safe for players, employees, and fans to resume games.

[MORE: Players doing what they can to stay in shape during NHL pause]

That limbo is new territory for players. At this point in the season some are preparing for a playoff run, while others are playing out the string before beginning their off-seasons earlier than desired. Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno noted that the idea of finishing out this season possibly over the summer and then playing out a full 2020-21 schedule beginning in the fall could have a big affect.

“You’ve got to think about the health and safety of star players as well,” he said. “When you’re playing that many games a year, now we’re going to try to push it into that late in the summer and then possibly right into another season a few months later, and then postseason again for some guys, that’s a lot of games in one year that we’re not used to. I’m not saying that guys won’t grind out a way to do it, us hockey players will find a way, but you’ve got to think about the longevity of guys’ careers and their health as well. 

“Also, on top of that, now you have possibly in [the] situation [of teams not making the playoffs], you don’t end up playing [the rest of the regular season] and then we come back in November, that’s a long time for you guys to be off, too. Is that advantageous or is that worse?”

Everything remains up in the air and it will be that way indefinitely. The good thing is there will be plenty of time for ideas to be suggested and tweaked before final decisions need to be made. Everyone wants to see the season completed and the Stanley Cup awarded for 2019-20.

“I think guys have been honest in throwing out ideas because any idea is worth it at this point,” added Foligno, “but we really have to think about how we’re going to go ahead here smartly, both on the business side and on the health side and for the fans as well. We want to give them the best product every time we step on the ice. That’s something we pride ourselves on, and they expect it. They’re the ones paying their hard-earned money for it. It’s all stuff we’ve got to think about.”

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.