How 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs could look after halted season

NHL insider Justin Bourne joins Good Show with Ben Ennis (in studio) and J.D. Bunkis (via phone) to discuss why it will be much more challenging and unlikely for the NHL to salvage their season then any other of the major sports.

Let’s dream a little dream, shall we?

Four days into what will likely be a long period of self-quarantine, I know I can certainly use something fun to think about.

Even though the prospect of seeing the Stanley Cup lifted this summer seems to grow dimmer with each passing day, the timeline spelled out in Monday’s memo to NHL players does appear to leave room for what is believed to be the preferred re-entry point from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis:

A 24-team, play-in style playoff format designed to maximize revenues — hello Montreal and Chicago! — while including every hopeful from a regular season that will almost certainly be halted at 85-per-cent completion.

It would be a touch gimmicky, yes, but not completely without precedent across NHL history (more on that later). It would ensure that every team with a .500-point percentage or better gets in. And in theory, at least, it would create the kind of gauntlet you want any champion to survive before getting its name etched into the rounded silver edges of the Cup.

How likely it is to happen is impossible to say.

This is still very much pie-in-the-sky with those at the highest levels of the league focused almost exclusively on navigating the events of the minute and hour during this ever-expanding coronavirus outbreak. The NHL still doesn’t know exactly what kind of window it will get to stage a playoff tournament — or if it will be left with one at all — and must keep its options open as a result.

“We are looking at every contingency and what’s doable, so, yes, everything for consideration is on the table. It doesn’t mean that any of those are going to happen,” commissioner Gary Bettman cautioned Friday during an appearance on Hockey Central.

Just for fun, let’s try our hand at one possibility.

Rumours about a potential 24-team tournament have started spreading on social media because multiple NHL front offices believe that’s the preferred direction under these special circumstances. According to sources, that format would see eight teams get a bye — Boston, Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Edmonton in the West — while the next 16 participate in a best-of-three play-in.

Those initial games could be held across four days in a fashion similar to how the NHL began the 1978 Stanley Cup Playoffs and set the matchups for Round 1.

The concept isn’t without seeding challenges. Teams had played an uneven number of games when the regular season was paused last week, so points percentage would have to be used. And there’s also a belief among clubs that there would need to be a nod to the divisions rather than just a straight conference ranking.

That would see Toronto bumped to a higher seed as the team with the third-best points percentage in the Atlantic Division, and Edmonton and Vancouver seeded higher due to their standing in the Pacific.

The seedings could end up looking something like this as a result:


1. Boston (.714)

2. Tampa (.657)

3. Washington (.652)

4. Philadelphia (.645)

5. Pittsburgh (.623)

6. Toronto (.579, 3rd Atlantic)

7. Carolina (.596)

8. N.Y. Islanders (.588)

9. Columbus (.579)

10. Florida (.565)

11. N.Y. Rangers (.564)

12. Montreal (.500)


1. St. Louis (.662)

2. Colorado (.657)

3. Vegas (.606)

4. Edmonton (.585, 2nd Pacific)

5. Dallas (.594)

6. Vancouver (.565, 3rd Pacific)

7. Nashville (.565)

8. Calgary (.564)

9. Winnipeg (.563)

10. Minnesota (.558)

11. Arizona (.529)

12. Chicago (.514)

Using these assumptions, the play-in series would look like this:

Pittsburgh vs. Montreal

Toronto vs. N.Y. Rangers

Carolina vs. Florida

N.Y. Islanders vs. Columbus

Dallas vs. Chicago

Vancouver vs. Arizona

Nashville vs. Minnesota

Calgary vs. Winnipeg

Now, from a competitive standpoint there’s an argument to be made for a 22-team tournament that would see Pittsburgh and Dallas each get a bye and then have 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 in the play-in round.

But that would drop Montreal and Chicago from the picture, and given the size of those markets that’s not likely to be viewed as kindly as the 24-team setup. If the NHL manages to get up and running again, everyone will be keen to recoup as much lost revenue as possible — a challenge made tougher by the fact they’re likely to have empty buildings to start the playoffs, if not the whole way through.

Among the other playoff ideas floating around are a March Madness-style bracket tournament that includes every team. The league has also let it be known that it’s open to suggestions from team executives.

“I don’t want to speculate as to which direction we’re going in,” Bettman said on Hockey Central last Friday. “We are analyzing every conceivable option that is available to us and that’s not something that’s static. In other words, what’s an option today, there may be different options — fewer options, more options, who knows? — next week.

“My hope and expectation is that we can finish the season in some form, award the Stanley Cup and then be able to move on feeling that we accomplished that goal of finishing the season for our fans.”

In these strange times, I hope the commissioner will forgive a little bit of harmless speculation.

It certainly beats the other stuff we’ve been talking about.


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