31 Thoughts: Player vote underway on NHL playoff system

Arash Madani chats with Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston to discuss the latest news on the NHL's potential 24-team postseason format. Plus, are Canadian cities in the running to host NHL games if the league returns?

• Breaking down the 24-team playoff proposal
• Exploring the idea of a seven-team lottery
• Could Vegas host the Stanley Cup?

No matter what playoff format gets picked, someone’s going to hate it. (Okay, maybe more than one person will hate it.)

We don’t know if the NHL is going to be able to resume its season, but we know that — come hell or high water — it is going to try. As Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported Thursday night, the NHLPA’s Executive Board (that’s the 31 player representatives) is voting on the conference-based “play-in” proposal. It is hoped results will be known Friday night.

The fact all the players aren’t voting is a good sign for approval. But nothing is done until it is done.

The players wanted to know what they could be coming back to. The league wants some buzz. The Return to Play Committee’s met almost on a daily basis to hammer out a solution. Eventually, you have to stick out your neck.

It’s an imperfect time in an imperfect world. Go with something and make the best of it.

The proposal is close to what the NHL initially suggested. Top four in each conference (based on points percentage) get byes. Then it is a “bracketed” setup: 5 vs. 12 (winner plays 4), 6 vs. 11 (winner plays 3), 7 vs. 10 (winner plays 2), 8 vs. 9 (winner plays 1). That’s how the NCAA basketball tournament does it, with the exception that the higher seeds have no byes.

Series best-of-five in the “play-in,” and best-of-seven after.

Teams and players initially balked at this idea because they didn’t like byes. Those concerns are alleviated by the fact the top four will play each other once while the eight series begin. (That tracks with the belief this will be a “two-hub” system, not four.) The league wants those games to matter. I’m not sure how previous regular-season performance will affect all this. As an example, the Avalanche were two points back of the Blues with a game in hand. What formula will be created for them to have a chance at catching the West’s top seed?

And should there be limits to how far anyone can go up or down? Boston was eight points ahead of the Eastern Conference. Dallas was four behind Vegas, but 10 back of Colorado. Should the Stars be able to reach the Golden Knights, but not the Blues or Avalanche?

As for the rest of the pack, the players proposed a “weighted” play-in between teams ranked seven-to-12 in each conference. With a handicap based on where each team finished in the regular-season standings, those clubs would compete against each other in a round robin to determine who joined the top six in the “official” playoffs. When the league crunched the numbers, however, they discovered scenarios in which teams at the bottom could have a great five-game run and not be able to reach the next round. That blew up the idea.

Not everyone loves this. It is possible, a couple of sources suggested, there will be a push for modifications or further clarifications.

Either way, there’s a ton of work that still needs to get done. As one governor said Wednesday, “You can’t believe how many tiny details there are.” Testing, safety protocols, PPE sourcing, families. If you’ve skimmed through Major League Baseball’s 67-page protocol for its players, it feels overwhelming.

But, at the very least, we’re getting closer to finding out what the post-season will look like.

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1. My guess is we don’t see training camps before July. In addition to the playoff format, it sounds like the NHL and NHLPA are working together on adjusting the critical-dates calendar. That means contracts for players will be extended from June 30 (the normal end of each season) to whenever this year officially concludes.

The interesting thing will be contracts for coaches/executives scheduled to expire on that date. There will be the option to extend those, too, but there might be situations where a team and/or an individual would not wish to extend. Vancouver and amateur scouting director Judd Brackett would be an obvious one. There is at least one coach not extended past this season who has mused about declining to return.

2. Want to make the play-in really interesting? Loser gets the first-round draft pick of the winner. Example: If Montreal beats Pittsburgh, or Chicago beats Edmonton, the Penguins/Oilers go where the Canadiens/Blackhawks would have originally chosen (eighth and ninth, respectively). Yes, there are complications with Arizona (first-round spot tied up in the Taylor Hall trade) and Vancouver (first-round selection linked to New Jersey via Tampa in the J.T. Miller/Blake Coleman deals), but these can be worked out.

3. Here’s where Carey Price ranked in the last three NHLPA Player Polls among goalies: first, first and first. The closest of those votes was 12 percentage points. Pittsburgh is not crazy about this matchup, and Price was a big reason players fought against the opening round being a best-of-three. Whatever the numbers say, he’s got the deep respect of his peers.

4. Was talking to agent Jeff Jackson this week, who had a unique idea I liked. If the league wants to create June buzz, have a seven-pick “draft.” Jackson thinks the extra wait is hard on prospects and proposed the idea since, in theory, those players would be the ones with the best chance to make the NHL next season. It also involves the teams that will not compete in the playoffs, giving those fans something to be excited about while their teams spend nine months off. (Maybe sell some tickets, too.)

The format would be pretty simple: Do the lottery with the teams guaranteed to be in it — Detroit, Ottawa (twice), Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo. Twenty four hours later, make your picks. I ran it by some people on Wednesday, and the biggest opposition was that if the 24-team playoff never happens, those other lottery teams really get shafted.

5. Le Journal de Montreal’s Jonathan Bernier reported Monday that Vegas could host the Stanley Cup Final and semi-finals. I can’t confirm that, but it would be a surprise if Vegas was not one of the hubs.

6. The NHL also asked the cities who bid on hosting eight teams how comfortable they’d be hosting 12.

7. Whether or not Phase II of the return protocol is enacted any time soon, I do think you’re going to see more and more North American–based players skating as the calendar flips towards June. I also think you’re going to see those in Europe investigating returns and what their living situation will be for training camps.

8. But do be careful about skating in groups. There is a rumour that a facility in Toronto was busted Wednesday night for violating the numbers limit.

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9. One of the storylines will be the health of injured players and whether or not they can return. Last month, Vancouver GM Jim Benning indicated Micheal Ferland is a possibility. Ferland is in Brandon, Man., with a few NHLers, including Colorado’s Matt Calvert and Philadelphia’s Travis Sanheim.

“No skating yet,” Ferland said Wednesday, “but I’ve been training and I’m feeling good. Symptom-free.”

Ferland’s last NHL game was Dec. 10. He played one period of a conditioning stint on Valentine’s Day at AHL Utica, before leaving with concussion-like symptoms.

“Before that, I didn’t take enough time off. I wasn’t ready yet. This time I rested. I’ve got a good gym setup here, treadmill, and a bike to ride. I’ve been able to stay in shape.”

He laughed.

“A mini training camp is what I need.”

10. It’s great to hear that Ferland feels good. That’s the most important thing. There’s always a concern about his concussion history and the role he plays. It’s possible that no fighting or scrums will be allowed, which eliminates a good chunk of the danger. Whatever the case, “I’m going to be a lot smarter picking my spots,” he says. “I want to stick up for my teammates, but I’m not going to be fighting for no reason.”

11. Anaheim is looking for a goalie coach at the minor-league level. I could think of a lot worse places to be than San Diego.

12. One under-the-radar move that showed how business is shifting was Adam Brooks’s two-year extension with Toronto. His AAV of $725,000 gives him a much better chance of playing for the Maple Leafs. His AHL guarantee of $175,000 in Year 1 and $250,000 in Year 2 is still strong, but lower than the Marlies would have done in the past. It did not go unnoticed.

13. AHL Iowa’s Gerry Mayhew scored 39 goals in 49 games. The last AHLers to hit 40 were Colin McDonald (42 in 80 games) and Nigel Dawes (41 in 66) back in 2010–11. Mayhew was a second-team All-Star. Tough crowd.

14. In the aftermath of the CHL’s settlement on the minimum-wage lawsuit, there was some confusion about how much is being covered by insurance and how much each team is responsible for. It’s my understanding that the $30-million insurance fund had been dipped into. So $15-million will come from that fund and the rest from the teams. That’s approximately $250,000 per team, split into two payments. And those payments are scheduled relatively quickly.

15. Jeff Marek reported a couple of weeks ago that the CHL will be flexible with scheduling the 2021 Memorial Cup, with the option of moving it into June. Like the AHL, the Canadian junior leagues will do multiple models of schedules — from normal, to a full schedule with a delayed start, to shorter seasons of 44 and 36 games beginning later in the 2020–21 year. No idea what happens, but you have to be ready to try anything.

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16. In the last few days, Notre Dame and Marquette announced their fall semesters will begin in August; their break in October will be erased and the semester will end before U.S. Thanksgiving. That’s in fear of a second wave during flu season. The Fighting Irish play NCAA hockey and I wondered if that meant member schools might explore playing earlier, too. But I was told that hasn’t been discussed.

17. Big question: How long are KHL players willing to wait before deciding on their plans for next season? The Athletic’s Michael Russo reported the NHL is not happy several contracts have been verbally agreed to — without officially being signed — pending a decision on whether or not players on a reserve list could be eligible for the post-season. Normally, the answer is yes (see Chris Kreider, 2012 Rangers), but, to this point, there’s no certainty it will be allowed for these playoffs.

It’s a hard spot for the likes of Kirill Kaprizov (Minnesota) and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders) because if they can’t play now, can they really be expected to wait until December or January for their next action? There’ve been suggestions about signing elsewhere with an NHL “out” clause, but that’s dicey. There’s no guarantee anyone would agree to do it. Not an easy decision for them.

18. Many hockey people are like you and I — suddenly way more familiar with Zoom than we thought we’d ever be. And, when it looked like the draft was going to be in June, they really went crazy, setting up prospect interview after prospect interview. Now that it’s unlikely to happen, things have cooled down a bit. But that won’t stop anyone from searching for an edge.

“We collect data and analytics on all of the ranked draft players, or others targeted by teams,” Stathletes co-founder and co-CEO Meghan Chayka said Wednesday. “It’s even more important now that (teams) can’t watch them play. Scouts are spending time at home and want to work. They’re looking for a competitive advantage. Even though they don’t know (draft) timing, they’re putting on the pressure to get the information in a timely manner.”

19. While Stathletes works to do that, they were also approached to do some good. A group of scientists and clinicians calling themselves COVID-19 ModCollab needed help with modelling to predict healthcare resource needs in Ontario. So Chayka received a call from Dr. Andrew Morris, Medical Director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto.

“Dr. Morris follows me on Twitter,” Chayka said. “He’s a basketball fan — loves the analytic side of basketball. When we got that call, we couldn’t say no.”

Stathletes is helping them project the usage/need for PPE.

“In the U.S., the number-one problem in infection control departments is PPE. We’re trying to give them the ability to project with some confidence what they’ll need in hospitals. We’re pretty fortunate that we have tools and expertise in this sphere to help with this work.”

Prior to the shutdown, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel featured Stathletes’ research into the last professional North American games played before COVID hit. (The team includes Beate Sander, Director of Health Modeling, Health Economics and Population Health Economics Research at Toronto Health Economics and Technology Assessment, as well as Dom Galamini and Jeff Georee.)

20. In addition to that, Chayka’s team is also investigating how much time players on the ice spend within six feet of each other and what that means for hockey in the time of COVID.

“We’ve got clients from all over the world. We’ve seen return-to-play plans, and we’re working though team sports. Soccer, there’s a lot of space, so it’s different than hockey with the benches and shared space at all times. It’s not just the players you are worried about. Hockey is interesting because, when you’re walking or running, it’s harder to transmit (the coronavirus) in open space. When you’re skating quickly it would seem that there’s a lower risk for players and on-ice officials, but we’re still looking at the data. We initially tested ideas with our NHL tracking data. We’re working with infectious-disease doctors and epidemiologists to make sure the assumptions are appropriate for all games. We don’t have enough information yet.”

Is there a timeline for knowing more?

“We’re hoping within the month. But this is a long-term approach. If COVID does not go away, this could be valuable information for years to come.”

21. Meanwhile, Chayka and The Athletic’s Alison Lukan have been doing analytics events on Zoom during the pause. Called Hockey (Analytics) Night in Canada (or HANIC), they are expanding into some NFL stuff, too.

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22. On his Twitter feed, John Shannon reported the following: “The NHL and teams have done social distancing models for people in seats. Most arenas, based on people being six feet apart in every direction, would only be able to host 2,000-2,500 fans at a game.”

To add to that, another team indicated it modelled with families of four, who social-distanced together at home, and would then be allowed to be together at a game. They got up to 4,000.

23. The same team indicated they were told that you’d need a one-mile lineup to get every 900 fans into the building. And, again, imagine getting everyone out post-game. The details are unbelievable.

24. This is a long way down the line, but if the 2020-21 season does go from December/January to July — I wonder how many teams are going to ask their fans if they want that schedule to be permanent.

25. Good story from this week’s episode of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast: Shane Doan said that GM Sean Burke asked he and Jarome Iginla about playing for Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Didn’t work out, mainly because the latter needed hip surgery, but they were flattered to be considered.

26. When I was a high school student, an English teacher assigned the book Paper Lion to me. It was written in 1966 by George Plimpton, detailing how, at age 36, he spent a couple of weeks with the Detroit Lions, trying to make the team as a quarterback. The whole idea was to prove how hard it would be, and Plimpton accomplished that.

It was a fun read. It wasn’t the first time he tried something like that, and it wouldn’t be the last. The book was made into a movie where, going back to pass, Alan Alda (who plays Plimpton) smashes into his own goal post. (This did not actually happen.)

I was reminded of Paper Lion when I saw the Lightning’s entry for the All-In Challenge. Tampa is offering someone the ability to try out for a roster spot during the 2020-21 training camp. The bid is already at $16,000. Canada, in particular, is full of people who are convinced they should be in the NHL.

27. Congratulations to Bruins fan Joan Kilban, who won $30,000 in new tech for her classroom by being named winner of the NHL & NHLPA’s Future Goals Most Valuable Teacher program:

Megan Campedel (a Penguins fan) and Jennifer Armstrong (Flyers) were runners-up, receiving $10,000 apiece. We’ve all learned how valuable teachers really are, not only as educators — but also as babysitters.

28. As The Last Dance concluded, I had a couple of thoughts on it. First, my favourite Jordan story: The Bulls came to Toronto to play the Raptors on Feb. 19, 1998. It was an ugly time for Toronto’s NBA team. Six days earlier, they’d traded Damon Stoudamire to Portland, and, one of the players sent in return, Kenny Anderson, refused to report. He was flipped to Boston the night before the Bulls’ game, but all of the maneuvering left the 11-40 Raptors with just nine players against 39-15 Chicago, en route to its final NBA Championship.

Toronto still played in SkyDome at the time, and attendance that night was 30,172. This huge number wasn’t uncommon for a Jordan visit, and the Raptors actually beat the Bulls twice at home in their first two seasons.

Chicago led 55–44 at the break. My seat then was near the visitor bench. Phil Jackson walked up to Jordan as the second half was about to begin and asked, “Why don’t you take the rest of the night off?” Jordan said no. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like, “I haven’t given these fans their show yet.”

At the half, he had three points, all from the foul line. Jordan played the full third quarter, scoring 13 points, many of them in spectacular fashion. The crowd loved it. As the horn sounded at the end of the frame, he walked by Jackson and said something like, “Now I’m done.” It was 91–64. I always remembered that. That might have been those fans’ only chance to see him.

29. I loved the documentary. I was a big Jordan fan and knew a lot of the material, but it was still excellent. Obviously, there were things Jordan did I wouldn’t do, but I think it is good for everyone to see that to be really successful, you have to be driven and demanding. Of yourself and of your teammates. It’s not always easy and sometimes things get harsh in tough moments, but you have to expect a lot of yourself and others around you to reach the highest limits.

30. Alberta’s COVID numbers have been low, and I hope it stays that way as Edmonton makes an impressive bid to be a hub city as the NHL tries to return. Back on March 31, a huge Oilers fan named Shawn Auger became Northern Alberta’s first victim of the virus.

“He loved the Oilers,” said close friend Zach Kachuk (we spoke Wednesday). “We shared season tickets. He’d make the four-hour drive 10 to 12 times per year. When we became friends, they weren’t good and we used humour a lot of times to enjoy it.”

If you have any doubt of his fandom, here’s a picture of him at his wedding to wife Jennifer:

Courtesy of the Auger family

High Prairie is the area hub, but Auger lived in the nearby community of Grouard and worked in the Youth Assessment Centre. Later he became vice president of the local minor hockey association.

“He joined the association because he saw some things needed to be done, and he didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ who complained but didn’t do anything,” Kachuk said. “He always had your back. He was the same person at work and outside of it. He thought it was important people saw you that way. He demanded respect and knew where the line was.”

The day Zach and I spoke was two months to the day that Shawn went into hospital. A couple of weeks earlier, his son, Eden, won his league’s hockey championship. (He had two other children, Shealynn and Neriah.) Auger recently had bought a second home.

“It was going to be a group home for kids who needed it,” Kachuk said. “He was going to fix it up. He was so proud of that, talked about it for years. A second home, and a plan to do something good with it.” If you are so inclined, here is the GoFundMe.

31. Auger, Kachuk and friends had one big “guys’ trip” per year. Kachuk says there’s video of a trip to Edmonton where they found themselves in a McDonald’s at 3:00 a.m.

“The more we make time for each other, the better we will be,” Auger said.

No better time for that than now.


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