Ongoing discussions about how to finish the 2019-20 NHL season appear to be making progress this week with various reports that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) are devising an unprecedented 24-team playoff format. While the timeline to close out the season remains undecided, the playoff format being discussed would create a postseason unlike anything the league has ever seen.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the playoff structure is expected to include an additional best-of-five play-in round in which teams that had very little chance of making the playoffs — like the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the East — have a chance to earn a spot in the 16-team bracket.
The top four seeds in each conference would receive a bye to the traditional 16-team, best-of-seven series bracket, leaving the 5-12 seeds to battle it out in the play-in round. As it stands, the Eastern Conference playoff would look like this:
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 NY Rangers
No. 7 NY Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
Byes: No. 1 Boston, No. 2 Tampa Bay, No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Philadelphia
The winners of the play-in round will advance to face the teams receiving a bye in a traditional bracket without re-seeding.
NHLPA executive board approved this format on Friday, although certain details still need to be fleshed out, according to CBS Sports. Technically, the NHLPA’s decision only authorized further negotiation on the format, so no official decisions have been made, but the 24-team format has been approved.
Here’s how the proposed format could affect the Bruins:
How it Affects the Bruins
As the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins wouldn’t participate in the play-in round. That being said, there are still a few concerns that could make things weird for the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Under the proposal, the top-four teams receiving byes would play a three-game round-robin to determine seeding. This means that the Bruins, who built an eight-point lead over their closest competitors (Tampa Bay) in the Eastern Conference over the course of 70 games, could lose their number one seed as a result of three games.
On top of that, even if the Bruins did re-earn their number one seed, there’s no guarantee that they’d face the weakest opponent remaining. Since the 16-team bracket taking place after the play-in round would proceed without re-seeding, the top seed would play the winner of the eight/nine seed match-up between the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets, regardless of how the other series’ go. So, even if the lowest-seeded team in the conference, (the Canadiens) knocked off No. 5 Pittsburgh in the play-in round, the top-seeded team wouldn’t be shifted to take on the weakest opponent.
As a result of this, there could be a scenario where the fourth-seeded team (the one that performs the worst in the round-robin) could match-up with the 12th-seeded team while the top-seeded team has to play the eight-seed.
The proposed format threatens the advantages that the Bruins earned during the regular season. As a result, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has already expressed his dislike for the proposed format:
“I don’t have a say in all of this, but I’d rather it be 16 teams, four rounds of four-out-of-seven, let’s go,” Cassidy told 98.5 The Sports Hub. “That’s the integrity of the playoffs. It’s always been that way.”
Cassidy’s concerns are certainly understandable. The Bruins were the top team in the NHL by a fair margin when the league was suspended. Boston was the only team to reach the 100-point mark. They had an eleven point lead over the Flyers, the fourth-ranked team in the conference (though the Flyers did have one game in hand).
The Bruins earned that top seed over the course of 70 games, and yet it could be lost as a result of three. It’s not hard to see why that could be tough to swallow. As Cassidy mentioned, however, there’s no perfect solution. Somebody’s going to be upset no matter what.
“Hopefully we get to that 16 in the right way and it doesn’t hurt us. I guess that’s where I’m coming from, that we don’t get kind of screwed in this process, because we shouldn’t be. We should be rewarded for our regular season. But I don’t think any scenario is going to be perfectly fair, I understand that.”
Nothing is set in stone yet, but all signs point to the 24-team format if and when the NHL resumes. On that note, with the ongoing coronavirus crisis, there are additional factors that are out of the league’s hands. We all want to see hockey return, but any return to the game must ensure the safety of players, team staff, arena workers, media, etc., which the league is still trying to figure out.
So, at this point, the question is still if the league will come back this season. If it does, though, nothing will be given to the Bruins. After all, this is playoff hockey, and everything must be earned.
Cam is a Broadcast Journalism student at the University of Maryland. He’s the Boston Bruins Beat Writer at The Hockey Writers, and is an avid college hockey fan. Find him on Twitter @CamHasbrouck!