31 Thoughts: How a 24-team NHL playoff structure could work

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman are joined by Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid to discuss driving from Edmonton to Toronto, staying connected with his teammates and much more.

• One idea for a 24-team playoff structure
• How goalies are staying sharp during stoppage
• Possibility of June NHL draft fading

“Nothing is set in stone,” several sources have indicated. “Don’t assume anything about a potential playoff structure.”

But, seriously, where’s the fun in that?

The NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee convened both Tuesday and Wednesday. And, as Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis, there could be a return-to-play format announced next week.

“No state secrets here,” Treliving said, “but I do sense some momentum that next week there could be at least a preliminary plan put in place for where we go.”

The 24-team playoff setup is being discussed, although, as mentioned, there is no guarantee. It would eliminate the controversies around the regular 16-team cutline, and allow the NHL a greater opportunity for regional television inventory. I’m told the magic number for many of these markets in the United States is 70. You want to play that many games on your regional network. It’s more of a challenge for teams like Pittsburgh, which deservedly gets a ton of national games.

There is some pushback on the 24. I’ve heard a few teams are upset that Chicago and Montreal will get in, especially if you’ve got to deal with a rested Carey Price in the opening round. That’s also led to a debate about what format the opening series should be — best two-of-three, or best three-of-five?

The top teams still don’t like the idea of sitting around while everyone below them gets meaningful games. It’s definitely a disadvantage. One idea that’s been thrown around is a set number of “regular-season” games among those teams in their respective hubs, but there’s a worry about “wasting” time during such uncertainty.

Here is an idea for a 24-team setup that can address some of those concerns:

METROPOLITAN HUB: Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Islanders, Columbus

ATLANTIC HUB: Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Florida, Montreal, Rangers (added as lowest seed from Metropolitan — Bruins are top-ranked in East, and should have that reward in their hub)

CENTRAL HUB: St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas, Winnipeg, Nashville, Chicago (Blackhawks stay in Central because Blues are top-ranked in West)

PACIFIC HUB: Vegas, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Arizona, Minnesota

The first round “becomes” a five-game round robin — with a handicap by standings at arrival of the pause. Based on points percentage, the seeds could be given from 10 points (first) to 0 (sixth) at the start. If you think that’s too much, maybe go from five points to zero. That way, every team that comes back gets a minimum of five games.

Top four move on to the next round, and decide if we’re dealing with best-of-five or best-of-seven from then on.

It’s different and it’s unique. Is it any good? I’m sure you’ll let me know.

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1. We’ll get back to other NHL notes shortly, but wanted to get to something a little more uplifting. There’s been a fair amount of coverage about ECHL players who were let go without their severance, and what could be done to help them. The Professional Hockey Players’ Association formed a COVID-19 relief fund and sent out its first cheques last weekend. The PHPA cancelled its annual meeting, which saved $200,000. Among individuals who donated were Dion Phaneuf, Toronto GM Kyle Dubas and — something that was nice to see — several ECHL owners/executives. Included were Maine Vice-President Daniel Briere, Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt Jr. and South Carolina owner Todd Halloran. Halloran’s Stingrays raised $15,000 through the sale of jerseys, and he added $30,000 more to that. The Spittin’ Chiclets guys deserve a lot of credit, too.

The goal is to continue to raise money to equal what those players lost, and this is an excellent start.

2. There’ve been some reports that Florida’s 2016 first-rounder, Henrik Borgstrom, will be going to Europe instead of staying in North America. Here is the response from Borgstrom’s agent, Markus Lehto: “Naturally, there are numerous top teams in all the best Euro leagues that definitely would like to have him. The NHL season may still continue and if that happens, Henrik is looking forward to helping the Panthers to win games. That is obviously if he is given the permission to play after his March injury. He is training hard in Helsinki with few other NHLers. Too early to discuss next season. Obviously the NHL is top priority.”

3. Paul McFarland will finish the season on Toronto’s bench as an assistant coach before moving to lead OHL Kingston next season. There have been a ton of rumours that Sheldon Keefe’s long-time right-hand man, A.J. MacLean, will replace McFarland. Word is that’s not a guarantee, and the Maple Leafs are taking a long look outside the organization.

4. I’m also not sure the Maple Leafs are too eager to flirt with LTIR once again. They knew they were starting last year without Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman. It wasn’t an easy dance for them — or Vegas — last season.

5. Again, no guarantees, but if we go straight to a 24-team playoff, the guys on the league’s seven other teams could have to go nine months without a game. One of them could be San Jose goalie Martin Jones, who is back in North Vancouver.

“Obviously, you want to play, and we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen,” Jones said Thursday. “But if you look back at the last few seasons, I’ve never had time in the summer to get in extended training. Being tired mentally is not something I like to admit. But a step back from the grind could be really good. I feel as motivated as I have in quite some time.”

It’s important to have a positive outlook in these challenging times, and Jones sees how time off could help him and his team.

“It was a trying season for all of us. I’m excited at the opportunity to get some rest and work on my game.”

6. Since Jones became San Jose’s starter in 2015–16, he leads all goalies in minutes played (20,548) and appearances (353) — both regular season and playoffs. It is strange to go from such an intense schedule to one where your next game is so far, far, away. He’s already started some training through video work with Sharks’ goalie coach, Evgeni Nabokov, and his personal coach, Adam Francilia.

“If I’m not going back until November, I can do a week off here and a week off there. Adam is in Kelowna — I can go there for three or four weeks. There are plenty of ways to keep your mind fresh. I don’t see myself getting on-ice until July. Four months of summer skates would be a grind.”

Will he look different when we see him next?

“Hopefully, I’ll look stronger and faster.”

Pressed for more detail, it was clear he didn’t want to give away much. Francilia’s expertise is biomechanics — that’s going to be a focus.

“Just making sure I’m moving the right way,” Jones said. “I don’t think you really realize it, but things accumulate over the years. When you start looking at it closely it sneaks up on you.”

7. Jones on the 2019–20 Sharks: “When it started to spiral, we went our own ways instead of coming together. It’s something that will be addressed moving forward.”

8. Finally, Jones on the stunning removal of Joe Thornton’s beard: “Pretty shocking. But I’ve got him covered. I’m growing one now — although it probably won’t make it to the season.”

He agrees with Jake Allen, who does not understand how on earth Braden Holtby can play with a beard under his mask.

9. Francilia, whose other clients include Thomas Greiss, Connor Hellebuyck and non-goalies like Justin Schultz, is now working with Matt Murray. They were introduced when Francilia visited Pittsburgh during the season. He didn’t want to go into what they are doing in much detail, so I tried it this way: Will Penguins fans notice a difference when play resumes?

“Yes,” Francilia answered. “In general terms, we’ve identified some structural deficiencies that weren’t allowing him to create the foundation of stance that he should have. A couple of hiccups were affecting his biomechanics.”

He compared Murray to Hellebuyck in the sense that both are “thinkers.”

10. Incoming AHL President Scott Howson was a guest on the 31 Thoughts podcast this week. He said an even more regionalized scheduled is possible for whatever happens in 2020–21.

“Everybody’s going to their best efforts to make (our league) work next year,” he said. “We have a plan right now, and that’s to play from Oct. 9 to April 18. Our regular schedule: 76 games… 68 for the teams in the Pacific Division. However, we aren’t naive — we know that it may not be possible for us to play on Oct. 9.”

So the league will model starting in November, December, January, etc., and how many teams are comfortable with each scenario.

“Then you add in the additional factor of, is it sustainable for a team to play with 50 or 35 per cent capacity based on social distancing? So there’s a lot to think about.”

Howson said the league will wait as late as the end of August before making a determination on October.

11. Another interesting AHL wrinkle: What if some teams that can play want to organize short tournaments for their prospects if the season cannot begin? Howson said that’s been discussed.

12. Howson appeared on the podcast minutes after Bernie Nicholls. They were teammates on the old OHL Kingston Canadiens in 1980–81. Nicholls was third in the league in scoring (152 points), Howson sixth (140). Their coach was Jim Morrison, who played 704 NHL games. At one point, Morrison pulled them into his office and played a practical joke, telling them they’d been traded to Windsor.

According to Howson, Nicholls replied, “Who’d you get? The whole team?”

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13. I don’t get this whole idea about anyone who wins a championship — whether it be the Stanley Cup, the NBA title or anything else — having “an asterisk” next to it because it didn’t come through a normal playoff. The world’s been thrown into total chaos — there’s an enormous effect on everyone’s mental and financial health. Anyone who wins is going to be separated from their families for months. All of this probably occurs before there’s a vaccine in place, so there’s real risk involved. Yeah, that sounds incredibly easy.

14. Two weeks ago, when Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly sent out his memo advocating for a June draft, most of the reaction was, “We may not like it, but whatever the league wants, it gets.”

The note promised 30 days notice, so we’ve slipped by the June 5–6 date. The league could go back to its original date of June 26–27, but online. However, there is a growing sense that the league office is backing away from this fight. On the Board of Governors call three days after that memo, it’s believed that approximately half the teams indicated they were completely against doing it before the end of the playoffs. Even more of an issue was there weren’t many teams willing to fight for doing it early.

One of the concerns with having it in the fall is suddenly the sports calendar is jammed with NFL, tennis majors, golf majors, big horse races, MLB, etc. But that argument is not swaying anyone.

15. I think some teams who would’ve gotten hammered by the lottery didn’t like the idea of Detroit being guaranteed a top-two selection. That didn’t help, either.

16. I really wonder about Montreal, the playoffs and the draft. Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher haven’t sounded enthusiastic about playing. Would the Canadiens want the playoffs, or a six per cent shot at Alexis Lafreniere (based on last year’s odds)?

17. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reported Thursday that Major League Baseball reached a deal on COVID-19 testing. No league or player group wants to be greedy by having access to tests that the more vulnerable or the public can’t get to. So MLB reached an agreement with a Utah-based lab that would provide testing for the players and support staff, plus thousands more for the general public.

Verducci wrote, “Under that plan, MLB would provide a net gain to public testing rather than drawing from existing resources.”

Mass testing is still a major issue in attempts to resume the season. Such a plan would soothe NHL teams and players who shared the same concerns.

18. The cost of testing will be significant. I’m getting estimates at close to $100 per test. It shows how much these leagues want to play. You could make a real economic argument that it would be less expensive not to. Short-term pain for long-term gain.


19. There’s a lot of theorizing about the possibility of 30-man rosters for the playoffs, including AHL call-ups.

20. Three Canadian cities — Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver — have legitimate chances to be hubs if their situations allow. It could come down to the quarantine. No one’s going to argue to waive it before it is time, but players aren’t going to spend an extra two weeks isolated from their families.

21. The players have a decision to make with their last paycheques. These were due April 15, but they chose to defer payment until May 15 (Friday) pending a decision on how much they wished to keep/give back. The deadline can be extended once again if they wish.

22. Last week, I finished Tanking to the Top, an excellent book about Sam Hinkie’s process with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Written by Yaron Weitzman, it gives great insight into the thinking of Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the New Jersey Devils.

Basketball and hockey are not always comparable, but it’s hard not to see some similarities between what happened with the 76ers, and what could happen in Jersey. One section discusses the aftermath of the 76ers’ 2012–13 season. They made a huge trade for centre Andrew Bynum from the Lakers, only to have him suffer through knee problems and not play. They missed the playoffs.

“The Bynum miscalculation left ownership feeling disillusioned with the direction of the franchise,” Weitzman wrote. “It didn’t matter that it was (owner Josh) Harris who had been most excited by the deal, or that he’d been the one who handed the keys to (then-coach Doug Collins, then the basketball decision-maker). Embarrassed and emboldened, Harris slowly began modernizing the front office.”

A few sentences later, there’s a line about how ownership told a hire from MIT, “We like how you speak our language.”

It’s hard to say where the Devils are going with all of this, and interim GM Tom Fitzgerald seems secure. But it will be interesting to see how much of the 76ers’ culture becomes part of the Devils’.

23. This might actually be a coincidence, but when John Tortorella was hired in Vancouver, John Stevens was very high on Mike Gillis’s list.

24. St. Louis goalie Jake Allen was very interesting on a live #Ask31 talking about “emulating” Tuukka Rask prior to last year’s Stanley Cup Final.

“Rask plays so different than most of the goalies we play in the West,” Allen said. “And he’s so good at it. There’s so many little things…. The way he plays around his net on posts — it’s so much different than most of the goalies that we play against. The way that he stands, there seems like a lot of net, but there isn’t…. Your perception is just completely off when you’re looking at him. (Goalie coach) Dave Alexander would video me in the net and I’d be playing like Rask. ‘Here’s what he’d do in this situation and here’s what could be open.’”

Was there a specific goal you remember that this helped with?

Allen laughed and said, “I wish I could say it was the winning goal.”

But he didn’t remember any specific one.

25. One tweeter who watched Allen’s conversation reached out for more information about “The Xtracker,” a device he and Jordan Binnington use in practice. (Alexander is one of its creators.) Here’s some video of it:

“It basically takes away your peripheral vision,” Allen said. “It makes you move your head over the puck…. Fundamentally it’s a great tool to keep things sharp, especially if you’re not playing a whole lot. I really used it a lot last year in the playoffs, more so than ever.”

Allen and Binnington are also doing virtual-reality training during the pause.

“It gets your eyes and your brains synched together,” he says.

26. I’ve had a few agents and executives indicate that they think the salaries of fourth-line players are going to get squeezed hard.

“A lot of minimum numbers, or close to it,” one said.

27. A few business items to look forward to over the next few weeks aside from the playoffs/draft. June 1 is the deadline for unsigned draft picks from 2018 (CHL) and 2016 (elsewhere) to reach deals with the clubs that took them.

At some point the NHL and NHLPA are going to have to address the critical-dates calendar. Qualifying offers are due July 1, but those will get pushed back. Signing bonuses are also due July 1 — unless there’s some negotiation to delay parts of those payments. There is also the potential for NCAA players to become free agents on Aug. 15 if they were drafted in 2016 and still haven’t signed. One possibility is Notre Dame’s Cam Morrison, selected in the second round by Colorado. The Avalanche have to make a decision there. That date could stay the same, because potential playoffs wouldn’t affect it.

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28. The Canadian Hockey League and professional women’s players will be closely watching what happens with the CFL and the Canadian government.

29. We’re all wondering about how it will work when the day comes that fans can re-enter stadiums. Someone asked a great question: “What about fans leaving stadiums?” That’s not going to be an easy process.

30. I thought about interviewing Dallas Eakins this week, but I’m annoyed at him for re-introducing burpees to the world. That exercise sucks.

31. Golf courses open in Ontario this weekend. I can’t wait to play, no remember how angry that sport makes me.

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