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Why the 24-team play-in tournament is the best option if the NHL resumes the 2019-20 season

A play-in tourney would have its problems, but it still looks like a stronger idea than a full-season shutdown or finishing the 82-game schedule.
Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports

Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports

It remains unknown whether the NHL’s 2019-20 season will resume at all. Nothing can happen until world health professionals declare the conditions safe from the COVID-19 pandemic – and that’s without fans in attendance. As of last week, the league still hadn’t set a deadline for deciding on whether the campaign will continue. That said, in light of comments commissioner Gary Bettman made Wednesday, the picture of what would happen if the NHL resumed this season has started to crystallize.

In an interview that aired on Fox Business Network Wednesday morning, Bettman indicated the NHL was considering various resumption scenarios and fielding ideas from teams lobbying around the league.

“Whatever we do to come back, and this is what I’m talking about being agile and flexible, we’re going to have to do something whether it’s complete the regular season in whole or in part, whether or not it’s expanded playoffs,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something that’s fair and has integrity. That’s going to be very important no matter what it is we do, and we’re considering all of the alternatives, and nothing has been ruled in and nothing has been ruled out.”

The big question is which scenario would best check the boxes of “fair” and “integrity.” Launching directly into the post-season would be extremely unfair to the litany of teams that were within striking distance of playoff berths. Six teams were four points or fewer out of a wild-card position when the season shut down March 12.

The NHL could opt to fully resume the season, with every team completing 82 games, but that scenario would have its own problems. With each team having between 11 and 14 games remaining and Bettman indicating that teams would need training camps and/or exhibition games to get physically fit again, it would eat month at minimum, maybe even two including the mini-camps, to complete the regular season. Bettman has already confirmed the best-case scenario would be to resume play this summer, so finishing the full regular season could push the playoffs deep into the fall. That’s something the league is willing to stomach – but only to a point. As NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly explained in an email to The Hockey News on Thursday, it’s a priority to preserve the 2020-21 season, meaning the Stanley Cup would have to be awarded by the end of the 2020 calendar year at the absolute latest. There’s no official drop-dead date for the 2019-20 season, he added, but there’s a range of dates at this point. Finishing the full regular season and then starting the playoffs would likely push the NHL to the edge of its acceptable date range.

In a finish-the-full-season scenario, it's also debatable whether players from eliminated teams would want to play out their years. Playing games at a neutral site hasn't been ruled out, as Bettman reiterated Wednesday. Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. President Donald Trump’s senior health advisor, stated this week he believes sports can happen this year in the NHL, NFL and MLB provided (a) they’re played in empty venues, (b) players are kept in lockdown for the duration and (c) players are tested roughly once a week for COVID-19. The NHL could theoretically follow suit if other major-pro sports in North America opted for this plan. In that scenario, if the NHL fully resumed its season, would players from eliminated teams want to leave their families behind for up to two months? The players would still have bonuses or contracts to play for, but the cons might outweigh the pros.

Perhaps, then, the play-in tournament scenario that has been floated to the NHL already might provide the happy medium the league would need. As outlined last month by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the idea, reportedly believed by “multiple NHL front offices” to be the preferred format, would give the top four teams in each conference byes to the playoffs: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Edmonton. It would then put 16 bubble teams in a best-of-three tourney to determine the remaining eight seeds for the post-season tournament, including matchups such as Pittsburgh/Montreal and Calgary/Winnipeg. Since this format would be determined by points percentage, it would erase the problem of teams not all having the same games played. It would also provide the play-in teams with a form of warmup games before the real real thing, and the eight bye teams could get extra practice time in while those best-of-three series were happening. The play-ins wouldn’t eat too much calendar time, meaning we could see the commencement of the Stanley playoffs in the late summer rather than the fall. The stats from play-in games could not count as regular-season play in this scenario, however, as excluding the eliminated teams would skew the results when it came to statistical races, award voting and players’ right to accumulate stats that would be admissible during contract negotiations this off-season. As for the draft lottery, the seven teams not qualifying for the tournament would still be part of it – combined with the eight losers of the play-in round. Then you'd have the traditional 15 teams in the lottery. That's merely a guess, but it would have to play out that way, right?

Would the play-in scenario be ideal? Obviously not, but it might be the best solution. It beats a cancelled season, and it avoids the crammed, rushed blitz that a fully finished season would bring. The play-in tourney would create a unique playoff experience watching 24 teams battle it out on TV over a course of a few months. Would it feel the same as what we’re used to? Of course not, but it sure would be memorable and special. And “special” might be the best tonic to the horrors the world has experienced since January.

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