Fairness? That’s what’s holding up the NHL’s Return-to-Play Committee when it comes to determining a format for the COVID Cup playoffs? Seriously? Well, if fairness is the goal here, those involved can do one of two things. The first would be to issue Participation badges to everyone who plays in this year’s playoffs. The second would be to forget about holding them, not only this year, but every season.
Of all the scenarios that have been floated for the playoffs, if the league is able to hold them, involved the top 12 teams in each conference making the playoffs, with the top four receiving byes and Nos. 5 through 12 playing a play-in round, either best-of-three or best-of five. Under that scenario, here’s how each conference would look if the seedings are based on points percentage when the league paused March 12:
Byes: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia
First-round play-in series: Pittsburgh vs. Montreal, Carolina vs. Rangers, Toronto vs. Columbus and Florida vs. Islanders
Byes: St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas
First-round play-in series: Edmonton vs. Chicago, Vancouver vs. Arizona, Nashville vs. Minnesota and Calgary vs. Winnipeg
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. In any other season, under any other circumstance, this would be silly. The NHL, even when it moves to a 32-team league in 2021-22, has hit on a formula that makes every game on every night an important one. Expanding the playoffs would go against everything those in power have been saying the past couple of seasons and would dilute the playoff competition. There seems to be a sentiment that the league will increase its playoff pool to 20 teams, which I will go in the record right now as opposing. With only half the teams being given the privilege of playing in the post-season, that makes it an accomplishment worth celebrating. It’s supposed to be hard to make the playoffs.
But in a season in which the world has turned upside-down and the league is in a situation where it is $1.1 billion below projected revenues, a 24-team playoff makes sense, particularly when teams will not have been given an opportunity to finish the season. But if you’re looking for an even playing field for everyone, you’re not going to find it. Not in this format, nor the current format under which the NHL plays.
Is it fair that the past couple of seasons two of the league’s top teams have played in the second round of the playoffs? No, but the NHL uses this format because it guarantees that divisional rivals will meet in the post-season. That’s important to the NHL and to the markets involved. But it’s certainly not fair. It certainly wasn’t two years ago when the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, the top two teams in the regular season, met in the second round. The Jets won in seven games and had nothing left for the Western Conference final, which they lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The notion has been floated that the prospect of a rested Carey Price would give the Montreal Canadiens, who otherwise would have been well out of the playoff picture, an unfair advantage in the playoffs and would somehow embarrass the league if they road his coattails to a Stanley Cup championship. If anyone should be crying foul, it should be the Calgary Flames, who would face the Jets and likely Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck in the first round. Any team that is fearful of facing Price in the playoffs hasn’t watched him play the past couple of seasons. He has clearly fallen out of the NHL’s elite group, despite the fact that this year's player poll by the NHL Players' Association named him the best goalie in something of a landslide. And if the Pittsburgh Penguins are concerned about beating Carey Price in a playoff series, and more importantly would use that as an excuse, they’re probably not a serious Cup contender anyway.
The same goes for the top teams that might be concerned that teams playing the play-in round would have an unfair advantage of being able to work the kinks out after not playing for two months. Again, if that’s your primary concern, you’re probably not an elite team anyway.
This is how it works in the NHL. You play the opponent placed in front of you. When you beat that team, you move on to the next one. Do that four times and you win the Cup. The best teams have a way of rising to the top and it’s very rare that a team that has no business winning a championship ends up with its name on the Stanley Cup. This year will be no different. Which is why there won’t be any asterisks beside the winner. And there should be no whining or excuses, either.