Four key issues the NHL could provide clarity on this week

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Sportsnet Today to discuss why he feels if the NHL goes with a 24-team playoffs to determine a Stanley Cup champion, then it would let the genie out of the bottle for future playoff expansion.

It’s shaping up to be a busy week in the NHL, as we inch closer to a point where decisions and timelines need to be made on the completion of the 2019-20 season.

There are still a lot of moving parts here. The Return To Play committee was working over the weekend to try and iron out details, while the board of governors will host a call at 3:00 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon. At this point, it’s still a fluid situation as the NHL and the NHLPA try and agree on the best way to move forward.

Here are some of the issues we could get more clarity on this week…

1. The hub cities

The NHL would still prefer four hub cities to host a season resumption, with six teams in each destination. However, the possibility of moving ahead with only two hub cities is also on the table if Canada cannot be included.

The NHL would like to play in Canada for a host of reasons. With the lower dollar compared to its U.S. neighbour, the costs for the NHL to put on the games should be lower. That’s not small consideration right now. And there’s a sense that if the season is to conclude, Canada should be involved.

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But time is of the essence as well, and the border remains a big issue. Under current protocols, anyone arriving in Canada is subject to a 14-day quarantine period that would apply to NHL teams in the absence of a government exemption. The NHL remains in Phase 1 of its return to play timeline, which involves players remaining in quarantine. Eventually, the league will move to Phase 2, which would allow small groups to gather again at team training facilities. Phase 3 would be training camps.

The amount of time needed to finish the season would be made longer if, after finishing training camp and travelling to their assigned Canadian hub city, players then have to be quarantined for another 14 days. If that government guideline is not relaxed by the time the NHL resumes, or if there’s no exemption made, Canada may not be included in the NHL’s plans. In this scenario, the league is looking at having only two hub cities in the U.S. instead, with 12 teams at each locale.


2. What is the return to play format going to be?

This is, of course, the big one. If the NHL is able to eventually return and finish 2019-20, it needs to finalize those plans. Right now there are all sorts of ideas on the table as the league tries to remain nimble and prepared for any outcome, but sometime soon it will need to narrow down ideas and focus on one plan and try to move ahead.

While the 24-team playoff remains the most discussed, there are a slew of issues around it, including:

• The players’ association and the teams ideally don’t want anyone to get a bye. The best teams in the league would rather not be on the sidelines as others played. Since everyone has been off the ice and away from game action for so long it could be a disadvantage to wait longer as others get back up to game shape.

• There remains a lot of sensitivity on including Montreal and Chicago in a 24-team playoff format. At the time of the pause, the Canadiens sat 10 points out of the playoff picture and, according to Sports Club Stats, had a zero per cent chance of getting in. The Blackhawks were six points out with a slightly better 2.6 per cent chance of getting in. While there’s a desire to include teams on the outside looking in who may have had a shot, going this deep into the standings has led to some push back. The next-worst playoff odds after those two teams were the Arizona Coyotes, who still had a 16.6 per cent chance.

• Further to this, the league is trying to create a format that would protect higher-seeded teams from being eliminated by someone like Montreal in a short series. Players have proposed a round-robin first, which would allow teams to get some games played before the real playoff bracket began. However, the league isn’t crazy about this idea. In last week’s 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman outlined how a potential round-robin format could work across four hub cities.

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3. The draft

On May 1, the NHL issued a memo to its teams that stated its case for the 2020 draft to take place in early June. There was some push back from teams on that idea, which is why no formal announcement has been made yet. Can you really have a draft before potentially finishing this season?

That same memo also stated the league would need about a month to prepare for a draft, so now that we’re in mid-May it seems the original idea to host a draft early in June is not going to happen. It’s possible the draft could still come together at the end of June in its more traditional slot, or that it’s delayed until after the season. Either way, this year’s event will be done virtually.

Time is running thin to make a call here, and we could learn more this week.

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4. The draft lottery

Speaking of the draft, the order of selection at the top of Round 1 still needs to be figured out. The NHL could still possibly hold a lottery similar to what the league has done in recent seasons, where all non-playoff teams have a chance to pick either first, second or third overall. But the more likely outcome at this point may be to have only one lottery “winner” and that the process could even revert to an older format where a winning team would only move up a maximum of four spots in order from their regular-season finish (so the 10th-worst team could only slide up to pick No. 6). This would guard against a concern that, if the league returns to a 24-team playoff, an organization could win both the Stanley Cup and the first overall draft pick.

That said, if a 24-team playoff is how the NHL proceeds, it’s possible the league could conduct a lottery only involving the seven non-qualifying teams.

This week we could at least get clarity on when the lottery will take place. It could still go ahead in June, even if the draft gets pushed back until the season officially concludes. But if that’s to happen, the league will need to make that decision soon.

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