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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.

Brian Burke, Mike O’Connell feud over claims about Joe Thornton trade talks

Burke, O'Connell feud over Thornton trade
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Hockey fans have fond memories of Brian Burke’s feud with Kevin Lowe, and now it seems we have a sequel. Burke and former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell are in a war of words over alleged Joe Thornton trade talks. The biggest winners? Us.

Consider it a very short three act play or … boxing match, maybe more appropriately?

Round 1: Burke recalls trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks, “babysitting” O’Connell

Burke provided refreshingly candid answers to fan questions during an April 2 Twitter Q&A. The thread is worth your time, as Burke discusses the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Phil Kessel, Roberto Luongo, and Gary Bettman.

But it was a two-part bit about Burke trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks that got the ball rolling.

Burke explained that he’s “still bitter” that the Ducks didn’t land Thornton, and believes he offered O’Connell a better deal than the Bruins ultimately received from the Sharks.

Most fascinatingly, Burke even gave specifics about what he was willing to offer. Now, one can speculate about who would have been in the Ducks top five in 2005. Would Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry possibly been available for Thornton?

But either way … wow.

As a reminder, the Bruins ended up receiving Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart for Thornton. As Bruins fans would like to forget, Thornton continued to be a star for the Sharks, including winning the 2005-06 Hart Trophy.

[PHT Time Machine: The Eric Lindros trade that didn’t happen.]

Round 2: O’Connell says Burke’s Thornton claims were a “fabrication”

Things got juicier between O’Connell and Burke on Tuesday.

O’Connell told The Athletic’s Joe McDonald (sub required) that Burke’s hypothetical offer didn’t happen, and that the details were a “fabrication.”

“The details surrounding this story are fabricated and I can confirm that no such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton,” O’Connell said. “Unfortunately, certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion.”

Whew! (Shakes hand to indicate serious heat emanating from this rivalry.)

Round 3: Feud sizzles to a new level as Burke counters

Not to be outdone, Burke responded to O’Connell’s claims in a fiery appearance on ESPN on Ice with Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. Burke made a key point by noting that current Ducks GM Bob Murray was in Burke’s office when he made the offer(s).

Burke also revived memories of wanting to battle Kevin Lowe in a fabled barn over the Dustin Penner offer sheet, saying “I wish we were in the same room, if you’re calling me a liar.” You really need to hear the entire clip, which Wyshynski posted:

*Ponders putting on oven mitts, this is all too hot to handle*

So obviously, this is a he-said, Burkie-said situation. We can only take each hockey executive’s word for it, and one could even argue that Murray might feel loyal to Burke.

But, considering the specifics of Burke’s claims, it seems feasible that the Ducks made some sort of offer for Thornton.

Theories

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.

It’s also crucial to realize how much a person’s memory can be altered by time. This happened in 2005, and sometimes the seeds of trades are planted far before a deal is consummated. It’s possible that O’Connell flat-out doesn’t remember Burke’s offer(s).

Not only has time passed, but O’Connell also took a ton of heat for the trade. McDonald notes this anonymous reaction from a Bruins player at the time of the trade:

“Are you kidding me? We traded Joe Thornton for three guys who can’t tie their skates.”

The Bruins fired O’Connell in March of 2006, and the Thornton trade undoubtedly served as a catalyst. Such events can leave you a bit scarred, and maybe even prompt you to forget certain details. Maybe phrasing like “babysitting” bothered O’Connell, even if I took it to mean that Burke was checking up on the situation quite often.

Or maybe O’Connell is right in claiming that Burke is making those Thornton trade claims with the “ultimate goal” of “self-promotion?”

One thing’s clear: this is fun

We can only really guess, and perhaps spend this coronavirus quarantine time imagining “What if?” scenarios. Could Thornton have pushed the Ducks into mini-dynasty status, as this was during their Chris Pronger – Scott Niedermayer era? Would the Bruins have landed blue chips rather than “guys who can’t tie their skates?”

(That’s totally unfair to Primeau, Sturm, and Stuart, as they all had lengthy NHL careers. Though I admit I have not received definitive proof of how adept they are with laces.)

The one thing we do know is that Thornton landed with the Sharks and had a great run. And that O’Connell (currently director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings) and Burke (Sportsnet personality) probably aren’t best buds.

Hey, it’s a lot more fun than talking about escrow though, right?

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.

PHT remembers video games: EA Sports’ NHL ’98 and its unmatched intro video

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Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look at NHL ’98, one of the most interesting entries in EA Sports’ series.

NHL ’98 won’t dominate “best sports games ever” tournaments like early entries in the series. NHL ’98 doesn’t corner the market on hockey video game nostalgia. It’s a bit niche for widespread warm-and-fuzzies.

Even so, NHL ’98 stands as one of the most noteworthy entries in the series. And it’s certainly one of the quirkiest.

(Note: this post discusses the Playstation version of NHL ’98. The entry is also noteworthy for being the last released on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.)

EA finally found its Playstation-era footing with NHL ’98

Asking a video game company to pump out an annual sports title is already asking a lot. Asking them to make a jump from console generations borders on audacious, especially around this time, when developers were still trying to figure out the whole “polygon” thing.

The NHL series’ stumbles backed up that notion. Most dramatically, EA Sports decided not to release NHL ’96 on Playstation for quality reasons. (See page 16 of this PDF of GamePro magazine. Heh.)

The company managed to pump out NHL ’97 for Sony’s world-beating console. Not only did the game capitalize on the Panthers’ stunning run, but they even incorporated John Vanbiesbrouck’s mask design into the disc art:

NHL '98 big step up from 97 except for disc art
Still pretty rad. Via EA Sports/Moby Games

Unfortunately, playing NHL ’97 was only slightly more enjoyable than taking refuge from a barrage of plastic rats. OK, that’s unfair, but critics backed up my teenage memories of being a little disappointed.

(That said, I’m bummed that a cursory video search didn’t turn up any of John Davidson’s pre-game analysis videos. Those were mind-blowing in 1996/97, let me tell you.)

Really, it wasn’t until NHL ’98 that EA Sports really got things right on the PS1. Not only was it well-received at the time, but Gamespot’s Brian Ekberg thought enough of the title to revisit it in 2005. That isn’t a small feat considering the churn of yearly sports releases (especially back when you might *gasp* see more than one major title per sport).

Quirks that made it memorable

As much as fun gameplay made NHL ’98 sing, the game really took advantage of CD technology to up the presentation.

(Some of the menu music will still trickle into my head.)

The biggest impression comes from the rocking and deeply silly intro video. Do yourself a favor and watch that embedded clip above this post’s headline.

To my delight, Game Informer’s Matthew Kato looked back at that ridiculous(ly great) intro in a 2018 article, catching up with composer Jeff van Dyck. Van Dyck provided a fun peek behind the curtain on making that video and the game’s music in general.

“[Producer Ken Sayler] said something like, ‘There should be a voice in here, an announcer, saying some stuff. Can you write some stuff?” Van Dyck said of composing music for the intro. “And I said, ‘I’m not really sure what he should say,’ and basically [Sayler] just rattled off what you hear in that intro. It was very flippant, the way he issued it. I think he was expecting me to re-write it, but at the time I just went, ‘Well, it sounds good enough to me.'”

And that’s how we got gems like “Are you afraid of the masked man?” in NHL ’98.

It’s all silly, yet the footage is remarkable enough that it just works. Even the font is pretty funny.

NHL ’98 featured avid gamer Marc Crawford

While Van Dyck went on to other EA projects, the NHL series and other sports games leaned on licensed tracks, making his compositions fairly unique for the series.

Also unusual: getting an active head coach involved in development. As you can see from issue 102 of GamePro (page 90), Marc Crawford consulted for the game. The article also describes Crawford as an “avid gamer,” which is just priceless. Seeing Peter Forsberg as a game’s cover star was a rare treat, too.

While the SNES and Genesis versions of NHL ’98 represented the end of the 16-bit era for the EA hockey games, the PS1 version might be considered an evolutionary leap. It wasn’t the first 3D-ish or PS1 game (again, that goes to NHL ’97), but it took the series a long way.

It even took the NHL games to places they’d never go again.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

  • NHL Championship 2000, Fox’s rare foray into hockey video games, starring Mike Modano.
  • NHL Slapshot, a Wii video game with a small plastic hockey stick peripheral that even Wayne Gretzky found delightful.

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.

Bettman on status of ’19-20 NHL season: ‘We’re viewing all of our options’

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman appeared on Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico Tuesday afternoon to discuss the status of the 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think right now there’s too much uncertainty,” Bettman said when asked if the weekend call featuring major sports commissioners with President Trump changed a potential target date if things improved. “Hopefully we’ll all know more by the end of April.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options. 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.”

There’s been recent reports that the NHL has been exploring the idea of holding games at neutral sites, but that’s all part of the planning process at the moment, according to Bettman.

“Our clubs, if nothing, are extraordinarily competitive, and whatever we do has to be fair, which is why there’s been some public speculation in the media about neutral site game in remote parts of the country,” he said. “That’s just part of considering all the potential options, depending on how we find the circumstances. But when you talk about fairness, we also have issues about if we get to play a playoffs, who gets in if we can’t complete the regular season. We had seven teams on the bubble and all they think they would have had a chance. We have to deal with the lottery and order of selection in the draft.

“The best thing, and the easiest thing, would be if at some point we could complete the regular season and then go into the playoffs as we normally do. We understand that that may not be possible and that’s why we’re considering every conceivable alternative to deal with whatever the eventuality is. Again, it doesn’t even pay to speculate because nobody in any of the sports knows enough now to make those profound decisions.”

You can catch the full interview with Bettman in the video above.

Here’s the Lunch Talk Live schedule for the rest of this week:

Wednesday 4/8
12:15 p.m. ET – Al Michaels and Doc Emrick
12:30 – PGA Golfer Justin Thomas
12:50 – Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett

Thursday 4/9
12:50 p.m. ET – Keith Jones and Eddie Olczyk

Friday 4/10
12:15 p.m. ET – Michele Tafoya
12:40 – Dan Hicks and Paul Azinger
12:50 – Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle

Follow the show on Twitter at: @LunchTalkNBCSN

Lunch Talk Live will air weekdays at noon ET on NBCSN and stream on NBCSports.com here and the NBC Sports app. Select content and interviews will additionally be hosted on NBC Sports’ YouTube channel and social media platforms.

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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.

Los Angeles Kings: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Los Angeles Kings surprises disappointments Jonathan Quick
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Los Angeles Kings.

Even-strength improvement, winning streak rank as biggest surprises for Kings

For a significant chunk of the season, the Kings lingered as sneaky-competent based on their respectable-to-strong underlying stats.

Making that argument in April ended up being a lot easier than advancing it in, say, February. The Kings ended the season/entered the halt on a seven-game winning streak, the longest remaining active one in the NHL.

No doubt, the Kings dug themselves far too big of a hole to make that streak anything more than a curiosity. Still, seeing that snakebitten team rattle off that run ranked as one of their biggest surprises. Well, among the pleasant ones at least.

(Kings fans likely found it a pleasant surprise to see the Sharks and Ducks also far out of the playoff picture this season, by the way.)

Not much help for Kopitar

Credit Anze Kopitar with scoring more points (62) during this paused season than he did in leading the Kings last year (60). It becomes more impressive when you realize that Kopitar scored 19 more points than the team’s second-leading scorer (Alex Iafallo, 43), and that IaFallo was the only other King to reach 40+ points.

(Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty tied for third with 35 points, while Tyler Toffoli had 34 before being traded to Vancouver.)

Any hope that Ilya Kovalchuk might enjoy a clean slate in 2019-20 quickly evaporated. Seeing Kovalchuk seem semi-revitalized in other locales pointed to a possible scoring malaise for Los Angeles, if the stats didn’t already make that obvious.

The Kings needed to work harder than other teams to score. One could often see that effort in those formidable fancy stats, but the standings argued that this rebuild remains justified.

For Kopitar’s sake, here’s hoping he still has some gas left in the tank for whenever that rebuild accelerates.

Quick failing to rebound among biggest disappointments for Kings

Jonathan Quick suffered through a disastrous 2018-19 season. That said, so did almost all of his Kings teammates.

In 2019-20, Quick couldn’t blame his fellow Kings so easily. After suffering through a horrendous .888 save percentage in 2018-19, Quick lifted his numbers … to basically the level of a backup. His stats don’t look much better when you try to correct for context, such as Evolving Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Expectation, as visualized by Charting Hockey:

You can wedge a pleasant surprise under the subheading of Kings goaltending, though.

Jack Campbell didn’t enjoy much better luck than Quick this season. Despite that, the Kings managed to extract a decent trade package from the Maple Leafs for Campbell (and Kyle Clifford).

I’m not sure you’d consider the Kings committing reasonably well to a rebuild a surprise. If so, consider that one of their biggest positive surprises of 2019-20, though. There’s some hope for what the Kings are (re)building.

Getting a strong trade return for Quick seems less and less likely to be a part of said rebuilding efforts, though.

MORE ON THE KINGS:

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.