Ultimately, if the Tampa Bay Lightning are the legitimate contenders everyone believes them to be, they have nothing to worry about regarding the NHL’s proposed playoff format, coming out of the pandemic. They just need to believe in themselves.
Killorn, Lightning Vote “No”
Representing the Lightning, forward Alex Killorn actually voted “No” to the proposal, which would see four more teams in each conference technically qualify for the playoffs (instead of the usual eight). The bottom eight teams would be seeded based on the regular-season standings and play best-of-five play-in series to what can be considered the actual playoffs.
Meanwhile, the top four teams will play round-robin games to determine seeding heading into the official first round of the postseason. As the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning fall into the latter four-team group, meaning they officially get a bye, which, in and of itself, is a good thing.
The Lightning aren’t alone in disagreeing. Teams like the top-seeded Boston Bruins have expressed concern that their season will go to waste, with three games (instead of the 12 they had left in their schedule) determining the match-ups heading into the official first round following the play-in series. Of note, the Bruins had an almost insurmountable eight-point lead over the Lightning in the standings at the time the league went on hiatus.
Lightning Have a Lot to Gain
That’s in part why the Lightning, who will presumably be getting captain Steven Stamkos back from injury, have so much to gain here. Killorn may argue on behalf of his teammates that the round-robin games put the top-four teams at a disadvantage, because of a potential lack of competitiveness relatively speaking compared to the play-in series, however it’s arguably up to each of the teams themselves to determine tempo of play.
Of course, if the Lightning don’t approach the round-robin games as elimination games, they won’t be as tuned up for when their playoffs actually start. However, are any objective observers actually operating under the assumption that the Lightning would have approached the remaining 12 games on their schedule, when the No. 1 seed in the conference was technically still up for grabs, any less seriously?
Maybe the Lightning would have, knowing full well they were still destined for a playoff berth regardless of how they played down the stretch. They shouldn’t have though, because they’d be in the same situation they’re claiming to against now, in danger of not being in playoff mode by the time the postseason starts. If that would have happened, it would have been on them, no one else. Same here. Besides, right now, the Lightning have a legitimate shot at getting the first, which they arguably didn’t have before.
Really, if any team should have voted against the proposed format, it truly is the Bruins instead of the Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, who were the only two to reportedly do so. Seeing as the Hurricanes have to technically play an additional series as a bottom-eight team (but a No. 6 seed heading in) they definitely have more of a legitimate gripe, especially seeing as they’ll be forced to play the eleventh-seeded New York Rangers, who won all four games between the two teams this season.
Meanwhile, the Lightning only have a losing record against the Washington Capitals of the three other teams with a bye. Overall, the Lightning are 4-3-1 against the three teams this season. And, while the regular season admittedly means very little considering how much time will have passed between the last games that were played and the start of the playoffs, the four teams will all be on equal footing in that respect. The better team should come out on top, all else being equal, with the slate wiped clean, right? If the Lightning are as good as everyone believes, they should have little problem. It’s up to them, though. It shouldn’t be any other way.
Another Columbus Blue Jackets Situation?
In many ways, while they can’t afford to look past the round robin, their focus should be on the official first round of the postseason, at least with regard to the potential benefits. According to Killorn, it’s unfair that certain teams like the Montreal Canadiens will have a chance to make the playoffs when they were all but out of it by the time the pandemic hit.
There’s little denying that, but if that’s the way the Lightning truly feel, they’re looking at it all wrong. The Lightning have a chance to draw an objectively weaker opponent in the first round than they otherwise would have, especially due to the best-of-five format the play-in round will take, which tends to lead to more upsets.
Granted, the Lightning could just as easily face another Columbus Blue Jackets situation like last season. In fact, they could just as easily face the Blue Jackets themselves, but that would be their shot at redemption. Really, the playoffs as a whole are. They just need to seize.
Lightning Will Have Edge in Round 1
To the Lightning and Killorn’s credit, they’re not protesting or complaining as much as they are just voicing their concerns. A vote had to take place and they voted against it, which was their right. They’re still for playing though, to be clear. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone. They just want the best favorable conditions as anyone would, but the NHL can’t please everyone.
Even under the traditional format, you’d have a few bubble teams just missing out who would kill for at least a few more games. The only reason people aren’t all up in arms about it is because it represents what’s normal. Nothing is normal these days, though. Changes need to be made and, to the purists out there who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the new format, don’t forget that the playoffs themselves have undergone many format changes in history, with the latest coming as recently as 2014.
No one is disputing that this situation is less-than-ideal, but it’s less than ideal for pretty much everone involved, including the weakest teams who had anticipated having a shot at a lottery pick. With the announced 2020 draft lottery format, they’ll only get that shot if they lose their initial play-in series. That may sound simple, but deciding to tank a series is generally not a flip that can be switched for professional athletes. They try to win. That’s the way the Lightning must approach the playoffs too. Just play. Try to win.
Admittedly, the Lightning may have lost the opportunity to play games in front of their fans, but that’s also true of everyone. It’s about making the best of a bad situation, and the Lightning are more fortunate than most here, probably more fortunate than their biggest competition in the Bruins. Aside from the fact that there will be meaningful hockey again, that’s what they and their fans should embrace. After all, all that means is, even if the Lightning feel like they’re not getting a fair shake, they actually have an edge. All they need to do is use it, meaning their fate, like it’s always been, is still in their hands. That’s all they can realistically ask for in this situation.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.