The NHL has joined other sports leagues in attempting a return to play by moving forward with a 24-team playoff proposal to continue the 2019-20 season.
Due to scheduling issues, the remainder of the regular season will be dismissed, and an expanded playoff format will be implemented to accommodate teams that were still in the hunt for a playoff berth. This expanded format will benefit some teams but could hurt others.
Early Format Details
The NHLPA has approved the league’s expanded playoff format but there are still details to be worked out before the NHL resumes play. The proposed format is as follows:
- The 24 teams that will be eligible to compete in the playoffs will be the 12 best teams in each conference based on points percentage.
- The top four teams in each conference will have a bye into the first round of playoff action and will not have to participate in the play-in tournament.
- The top four teams in each conference will participate in a three-game round-robin tournament. (It is unknown if the outcome of this tournament will determine the seedings of these teams one through four).
- The remaining eight teams will have a play-in best of five series to advance to the first round of the playoffs.
- Initial talks have suggested that after the play-in tournament games there will be no reseeding and the NHL will use a bracket-style format. (This idea is still being discussed).
Proposed Matchups and Seeding
Below are the matchups for the play-in round as well as the top four teams in each conference that will receive a bye into the first round. These standings were determined by points percentage in the standings on the day the NHL halted play.
Table 1: Eastern Conference Top Seeds
|Rank||Team||Round 1 Match-up|
|1||Boston Bruins||Winner of (8) vs. (9)|
|2||Tampa Bay Lightning||Winner of (7) vs. (10)|
|3||Washington Capitals||Winner of (6) vs. (11)|
|4||Philadelphia Flyers||Winner of (5) vs. (12)|
Table 2: Eastern Conference Play-in Round Matchups
|Pittsburgh Penguins (5) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12)|
|Carolina Hurricanes (6) vs. New York Rangers (11)|
|New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida Panthers (10)|
|Toronto Maple Leafs (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)|
Table 3: Western Conference Top Seeds
|Rank||Team||Round 1 Matchup|
|1||St. Louis Blues||Winner of (8) vs. (9)|
|2||Colorado Avalanche||Winner of (7) vs. (10)|
|3||Vegas Golden Knights||Winner of (6) vs. (11)|
|4||Dallas Stars||Winner of (5) vs. (12)|
Table 4: Western Conference Play-in Round Matchups
|Edmonton Oilers (5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12)|
|Nashville Predators (6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11)|
|Vancouver Canucks (7) vs. Minnesota Wild (10)|
|Calgary Flames (8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (9)|
This proposed format is a relief to teams that were likely out of the playoff picture that now have a chance to clinch a playoff berth but is disappointing to teams that will have an even tougher path to Lord Stanley’s Cup than originally.
24-Team Playoff Format Winners
Some teams are overjoyed at the 24-team format and will benefit from the hiatus and therefore the expanded playoff structure. Here are some teams that can make the best of this situation and make some noise in the playoffs.
New York Rangers
37-28-5 record, 7th in the Metropolitan Division
The New York Rangers had turned a corner and were red hot thanks to the play of Mika Zibanejad, Artmei Panarin and star goalie prospect Igor Shesterkin. They had a 10-2-0 record after Shesterkin joined the team that pushed them into a dogfight with several teams for a wild-card position.
They were only two points back before the stoppage and with the expanded format, they will sneak into the play-in round. With a young core the Rangers’ playoff experience might not be there but they have the goaltending and offensive firepower to turn some heads and pull of an upset if the playoffs resume.
42-20-8 record, 2nd in the Central Division
The Avalanche have been one of the best teams in the Central Division and the Western Conference this season despite ranking fifth in the league in man-games lost. Before the season’s hiatus the following players were on injured reserve:
- Nathan MacKinnon
- Nazem Kadri
- Phillip Grubauer
- Mikko Rantanen
- Joonas Donskoi
- Andre Burakovsky
- Matt Calvert
- Colin Wilson
They scratched and clawed to remain one of the best teams in the league, and should see almost all their injured players return after the extended time off. With a full and healthy roster they have all the tools to be a legit Cup contender this season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
33-22-15 record, 5th in the Metropolitan Division
Like the Avalanche, the Columbus Blue Jackets were also decimated by injuries and led the league with 419 man-games lost. Despite the revolving door of players in the lineup this season, the Blue Jackets remained relevant. They were in a wild-card position before the hiatus and were still jostling for a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The extra time off should bode well for their banged-up squad, and the Blue Jackets should see all their players fully healed if play resumes, including Josh Anderson, who was given a four- to six-month recovery timeline at the beginning of March after shoulder surgery.
Based on the new format, Columbus would match up against a speedy but smaller Toronto Maple Leafs team that has struggled in the playoffs against stronger, more physical teams and could work in the Blue Jackets’ favor.
24-Team Playoff Format Losers:
Not every team is happy with the new agreed-upon proposal and some teams may not participate in playoff action despite their strong season. Here are the teams whose playoff goals are hampered by the new structure.
37-25-9 record, 2nd in the Pacific Division
The Oilers were comfortably in second in the Pacific Division with a five-point playoff cushion and the ability to control their fate. They were also only three points back from the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, but unfortunately, will not be given the chance to overtake them as the top seed.
Instead of the first-round matchup they were hoping for, the Oilers would now have to participate in the play-in series, and risk getting knocked out before the first round. As the fifth seed, they would take on the Chicago Blackhawks who have been terrible for most of the 2019-20 season.
However, the experience of three-time Stanley Cup champions Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane would give the Blackhawks the ability to take down a relatively young and inexperienced Oilers team. This is not an ideal situation for McDavid and company, who have not appeared in the playoffs since 2017.
40-23-6 record, 3rd in the Metropolitan Division
Like the Oilers, the Penguins were also securely in a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division with a five-point lead on the Eastern Conference wild-card teams. Unfortunately, they would also fall into the play-in tournament as the fifth seed and would have to take on the Montreal Canadiens.
Jim Rutherford made significant acquisitions at the trade deadline, and with the core group getting older, they must relish every opportunity to claim a championship.
The risk with the new format is running into a red-hot Carey Price in the opposite crease in a best-of-five series. If Price can find his Vezina Trophy caliber of play, the Canadiens could knock off a strong Pens team before the first round of the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
36-25-9 record, 3rd in the Atlantic Division
The Toronto Maple Leafs were having a rollercoaster 2019-20 season and this new playoff format is not making it any easier for the blue and white. A weak Atlantic Division has given the Leafs little competition in holding onto the third spot, besides the Florida Panthers who were three points back before the NHL stoppage.
With the new format, the Maple Leafs find themselves as the eighth seed and in a tough matchup against a heavy and hard-nosed Columbus Blue Jackets team. Toronto is known for its struggles against physical teams like Columbus, making their task to move onto the next round more difficult.
Without a change in the playoff format, the Maple Leafs’ likely opponent in the first round would have been the Tampa Bay Lightning, a more even match in terms of skill. The cherry on top is that even if the Maple Leafs win the play-in round, they would meet the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, their kryptonite of the last decade.
Although it’s hard to make every team happy, the league is working on the fairest and most reasonable solution, while maintaining the integrity of the playoff grind, to avoid canceling the remainder of this season. There are plenty of details to iron out, but the 24-team playoff format, at least, provides a sense of optimism for owners, players, and especially fans for the NHL to resume play and ensure that the Stanley Cup is awarded to a team this season.