Obviously, right now no one really knows when or if the 2019-20 National Hockey League season will resume. If it does, and it seems like the league wants to do everything it can to make that happen after the Coronavirus risk passes, it’s not clear just what form the resumed season will take.
However, on Monday, a possible 2020 NHL playoff structure was being discussed among fans and hockey media. That structure would include 24 playoff teams, with the first two designed to weed out a number of contenders and teams that currently already hold a top playoff spot earning a bye and waiting for a later round before they play.
After a shutout win against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 10, which turned out to be the Bruins’ last game before the season was suspended, the team still held the best record in the NHL and, as a result, the top playoff seed. With this possible playoff format, however, Boston may find itself at a decided disadvantage, given the unusual circumstances currently in play.
For example, if no more regular-season games are played in 2019-20, that could mean some sort of abbreviated training camp would be held for the 24 teams eligible for the playoffs, and then the games would begin. As a result, some lower-seeded teams could have a chance to play several games before the Bruins get a chance to get any regular game action.
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Since the season would resume after a layoff of several weeks, if not months, it could be very difficult for the teams with early-round byes to get up to speed. If the 10 days the team had to wait to play between its four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final and the beginning of the Stanley Cup Final seemed rough, this months-long layoff would be all the worse, especially for the league’s top teams.
Of course, the 24-team tournament structure is just one possibility reportedly being discussed by the NHL brass while they wait to get a better idea on just when play can resume. On Tuesday, another potential scenario was reported that, although it would solve the problem of some teams getting in-game action before others, comes with its own set of challenges.
Here, it looks like everyone would have a couple of weeks for training camp and then play a brief end-of-regular-season schedule before the playoffs begin in a form that would likely look more like the structure with which teams and fans are currently familiar.
Again, however, good teams get the short end of the stick in this proposal. Non-playoff teams and those who exit in early rounds would have a majority of August, September and October as a makeshift offseason. The teams that make it to the Final would be looking at about a month off before the 2020-21 season begins.
One month off after weeks of intense playoff hockey, especially when coming off of the unprecedented mid-season halt in play, is simply not enough. With this format, it would seem the league would be risking fatigue and injury for too many players.
That being said, this structure does have its good points. If the playoffs are held in August and September, as proposed here, the rest of the schedule could be modified instead to begin a shorter 2020-21 season in January. Much like in a strike-shortened season, there would likely be no All-Star Game, and no bye week would be needed, but it should give all of the players adequate time to rest and recover.
It’s easy to understand why the NHL would ideally like to avoid disrupting two seasons so drastically. But these are far from ideal circumstances we are dealing with here.
Wait For Next Season
There is another solution, but it would not a popular one. If the league wants to restore as much normalcy as possible while keeping the players’ health and safety as the top priority, it might consider canceling the remainder of this season entirely.
Right now, everyone is as being as optimistic as possible about how long it will take before precautionary self-quarantines can end and life can return to some semblance of normal, including the return of the major sports leagues. However, it is still too soon to tell how effective social distancing and other actions being implemented to curb the spread of the virus will be. If it takes even a few weeks longer for this to pass than anticipated, the NHL may have no alternative to cut the season short. It’s not an ending anyone wants, but, unfortunately, it could be necessary.
Assuming that everything goes as expected and the season resumes at some point in mid-summer, these proposals are doable. However, in just about any foreseeable structure, several teams will be at a disadvantage.
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For teams that were fighting to secure a playoff spot when the season was suspended, it would not be fair to immediately start the playoffs without giving them at least a few games to make that jump. Teams that are just hanging on to a playoff berth could argue not enough games were played if they are knocked out in just a few end-of-season games. Meanwhile, top teams like the Bruins and the Washington Capitals would be facing an almost impossible schedule. By no fault of the league’s, someone is going to be unhappy with the route that is ultimately chosen.
On the flip side, just about every team will benefit from the current extended downtime. With second-pairing defensemen Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug both missing time with injuries before the play stopped, the Bruins are certainly no exception. In March, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player who isn’t banged up to some degree. Bruins fans will certainly relish the thought of embarking on a playoff run with a team that is healthy, fresh and raring to go.
No matter what the NHL decides to do about the remainder of the 2019-20 season and ensuing playoffs, players, coaches and fans alike will be thrilled to see their boys back in the ice. Still, I don’t envy the league officials that are tasked with making that decision.