10 reactions to the NHL’s return-to-play plan and draft lottery

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman joins Tim and Sid to discuss the details in the NHL’s Return To Play Plan, how it could alter next season and much more.

Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…

Appetizer: The make-up of the six-man groups (and staff member) will greatly affect how returning players train

This detail was included in a recent piece by Chris Johnston on the NHL’s return-to-play plans, regarding how players can get back on the ice in the coming days:

“The groups of six (or less) will remain constant and essentially be assigned a rotating shift for when they’re allowed in the facility. Where possible, teams have been told to assign a different athletic trainer, strength and conditioning coach and equipment manager to each group.”

So basically, for the next month after Phase 2 opens, players are going to skate in the same groups of six with the same trainer. I’m struck by how differently those groups are going to operate – it’d actually be a fascinating study of sociology and psychology if we could get a good documentary on this.

I’ve got Michael Jordan on the brain from The Last Dance doc, and just how much he pushed those around him, for better or worse. The NHL certainly has players who’ll push those around them farther than they’re comfortable. If you’re a serious player in Pittsburgh, you definitely want to draw into Sidney Crosby’s group.

Similarly, I’m sure there will be groups that enable one another to mess around, with trainers who lack real authority to push them in any meaningful way. I suspect how these groups work will vary greatly, and the results will be evident when play resumes. Don’t be surprised to hear a Stanley Cup champion later in 2020 explain how his group worked right from the get-go upon return in June.

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Main Course: 10 Thoughts on NHL’s return to play

Let me start off this collection of thoughts by explaining that Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is a sham. Yeah I said it. I’ve learned something that’s pretty hush-hush about that weekly column now that I’m a little more behind the scenes at SN, and I’m going to share it. Elliotte does “reporting” and gathers “information” and lets that inform his “thoughts.” Those columns are more like 31 Useful Pieces of Information (That Elliotte Has Thought About).

Me? I reek of authenticity when I say “thoughts.” These are 10 things I purely thought about while learning of the NHL’s proposed return-to-play plans. Now that’s a thoughts column. They may be way off base, they may end up bang on, but regardless, I at least think they’re centered around concepts and conversations worth having for hockey fans. So take that, Friedge.

1. The length of training camp once this all resumes will surely be shorter given what we’ve learned … right?

Initial rumblings were that players wanted a three-week training camp after all this, which I felt was a little long given that’s essentially full-length and we’re all going to need to make some sacrifices during these unusual times.

Anthony Stewart and I have gone back and forth about that timeline for a while now. I’ve contended that there’s no way a player after Day 12 of training is going to be like “Sure am glad we’re practicing another nine days before we risk a game here.” Stewy’s made the case that some guys have been flat-out stagnant, and basically starting from scratch (and in Stewy’s defence, Gary Roberts came on our show and said players would need more like four weeks).

The thing is, I believe all these conversations happened with the loose assumption players would all come back together and get going together for “training camp.” With this “phase two” portion of the return to play, where players can skate in groups of six for at least a month before this training camp, there’s no way these guys are going to skate for that long and then require three weeks together as a group after that. They’ve played 70 games as a group already, they know the systems.

2. Brackets provide some clarity in a year the seeds have basically been disrespected anyway … but they should still re-seed teams after each playoff round

There’s a specious argument about bracket-style playoffs that goes something like: “Well you have to beat everyone to win it all anyway, who cares if it’s in the first round or final?” It’s just so patently untrue. By avoiding better teams early, you give lesser teams a chance to upset them, so you may not have to go through murderer’s row.

The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy by 21 points last year then got swept in Round 1. They lost a series, yes, but I don’t think anyone believes that Tampa suddenly became a bad team after Game 82 last year and would have been an easy out for any opponent. Teams were happy to have avoided them in later rounds.

In that spirit, I’ve always favoured re-seeding the playoffs after each round. It puts more importance on the 82-game marathon of a regular season. The higher you finish, the easier draw you get in each round, and the better chance you have to move on. Heck, the NHL should be all over this – it needs to find a way to get its best teams deeper into the post-season the way the NBA does.

But as I said, this year the seeds have been disrespected entirely. Boston had an 11-point lead on the Flyers after 70 games, and if they have a couple off-nights after three months away from hockey they may start the playoffs as a lower seed. Given the time off, and the format for those top four teams by conference, I feel like seeds 1-4 have effectively been randomized. So, with things being complicated all over for fans, I wouldn’t hate it if they went bracket-style this year to keep it simple and clean.

Re-seeding is always the fairest way to go, so I still favour it. But given all the oddities this year I’m not going to waste much energy on it if they decide to go the other way.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

3. Why bother with any fuss about a Canadian hub city?

I can understand trying to get a hub city in Canada if: the league felt there was one of the safest COVID-19 situations in North America, or if they felt there were substantial savings to be had based on the comparatively weak loonie. But the reasons we’re getting seem to include Canada’s importance to the game of hockey, and the league wanting to involve it for more noble reasons. Those seem a lot less important to me.

The best thing the NHL can do for Canadians is get this season going smoothly and without further stoppages … wherever they decide to play. To me that means avoiding the difficulties that may come with involving the governments of two countries. It means putting it in the safest places (with sufficient amenities) period. People aren’t going to be at the games whether they’re in Toronto or Timbuktu; as long as the games are televised, I can’t imagine caring what country is on the outside of those arena walls. I know the cities themselves would stand to benefit from teams coming and playing there, but at this point the league just has to prioritize getting through the playoffs with as few complications as possible.

4. Glad Ovechkin got another Rocket, Matthews unlucky

Adding a Rocket Richard like this is what will make Ovechkin’s career honour list look so gaudy. It was already ridiculous, but now he’s well past the years players tend to pile up personal awards. A Rocket at age 34 (35 in September), in the thick of a dogfight with relative puppies in David Pastrnak and Auston Matthews? That’s an incredible accomplishment, and one I’m glad to see him add to his collection.

It feels unfortunate that Matthews didn’t get the chance to finish out the race. He’s shown flashes of greatness when he knows all eyes are on him. He scored four in his first NHL game, he scored the OT winner in the Winter Classic, and he has 10 goals in his first 20 playoff games. I thought if things were close down the stretch he may have pulled a rabbit out of his hat for a finale.

5. Thumbs up for the NHL leaving some things undecided

I know it’s partially out of necessity that this would be the case, but I like that the league didn’t make final decisions on things they don’t need to yet. There’s no forced planning like “All games will be played in the hub cities for the duration of the playoffs.” If restrictions are greatly changed by the time the season looks to wrap up in, say, October, maybe teams can play in their home cities, or maybe X amount of fans can go to the games. Let’s just wait and find out before declaring anything.

Even with the bracket style versus re-seeding option, the league decided they wanted more time to think about it. Great. There’s no rush. Get it figured out correctly, not quickly.

6. As a lover of chaos, I enjoy the statistical anomaly of play-in games not technically being regular season or playoffs. (How’s that work in arbitration?)

On Hockey Central Gary Bettman very clearly stated that since not all NHL teams would be resuming the season, you can’t call the play-in games regular season games. They just aren’t.

And, well, they aren’t quite playoff games either. The NHL doesn’t have a playoff structure that includes the 24th-best team and byes. Coaches aren’t getting bonuses for getting their teams to the post-season for “making” the … whatever this is. So you can’t really add them directly to a player’s personal playoff stats.

Good luck to those of you who host hockey stat websites, because I have no idea where you put these. As Brian Burke said on air, these stats will mostly be answers to bar trivia questions 50 years from now. I can’t imagine how these stats will be perceived in arbitration cases. (Quick thought: if personal stats don’t matter, would we see any players play differently?)

7. Buffalo not even being a part of the play-in games is insane

This graphic from shrpsports.com shows the Atlantic Division standings over three weeks into this NHL season. This season. The Sabres led the division by five points with a 9-2-1 record.

So that’s a dozen games in, and they ended the year having played 69 total times, leaving 57 games between the picture above and the season stoppage. Twenty-four teams made the play-in round. It’s crazy to me that Buffalo was that bad over the next 57 games that they ended up on the outside looking in.

I see the seven teams on the outside of the play-in games, and I don’t think the Sabres fit. There’s a lot of good there. Really, it may be that missing the play-in round is best thing that could’ve happened to them. A little luck in the lottery here would go a long way for that franchise and its fans.

8. If this does all come together, the mayhem of all the hockey, all the time, with unpredictable results, is going to be absolute hog heaven

If you pull back and look at the big picture view here, the NHL’s plan includes more teams, and potentially more games than a usual playoff run. The proposal includes holding it over a condensed schedule compared to usual. The teams are going to be jammed into two cities. Quick math on that: There’s going to be a ton of hockey in a short amount of time on a few rinks, meaning games spread throughout days, all day, every day.

I occasionally complain that the NHL will have like 10 games some nights, seven at 7:00pm and three at 10:00pm (EST). Limited ice sheets leads to a forced stagger of start times, meaning we can all watch way more of the games than usual. Amazing.

9. With this format, Montreal and Chicago both see their odds of picking in the lottery drop by double digit per cent

One area I feel the league did itself a disservice with this plan: in the rush to get fans interested again and include the big markets they’re hurting the big markets. According to the statistical models of Dom Luzsczyszyn, both Montreal and Chicago see their odds of picking in the lottery – something both teams badly need – drop by over 10 per cent (compared to if they just missed the playoffs in a normal year). Yes, the chance at the Cup is nice – but since they don’t really have much of one, I don’t think either organization would be happy about the trade-off.

10. If placeholders win multiple lottery spots it’s gonna be mayhem

On that draft topic, eight placeholder spots (for the teams that lose their play-in games) are going to be included in the lottery for the top three picks. If at least one of those wins a top three selection, they will then be entered in a random draw to see which team is assigned to which placeholder. Meaning that if one of the eight placeholder cards is drawn for a top three in June, each team that loses their play-in will have a 12.5 per cent chance at a top-three pick, and they’ll know that entering their play-in series.

If two placeholder cards are drawn, they’ll have a 25 per cent chance at a top three pick. It’s somewhere just above a one per cent chance, but it’s not impossible three placeholder cards could be drawn and that the play-in losers would have a 37.5 per cent chance at picking in the top three.

Imagine the chaos if it’s a 37.5 per cent chance at a top-three pick and getting Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield for the play-in losers. Like if you’re a Leafs fan and those are the odds, what’s the best outcome from a play-in series versus Columbus? Definitely a series loss, yeah?

Dessert: I too have been lied to, am upset

While I’m glad this routine wasn’t just limited to hockey coaches, I am aghast to discover that yes, the ol’ “stick across the back of the shin pads” heave was actually better for recovery than the position coaches always forced my teams into, with our sticks across the back of our necks to “open up our lungs.” I am retroactively upset.

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