Quick Shifts: If the NHL must jump right into playoffs…

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joins Hockey Central to talk about when fans can expect the return of hockey.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We understand if you’d like to socially distance yourself from this week’s column.

1. I was totally going to catch up on Better Call Saul.

After watching a bit of Wednesday’s Jets-Oilers game, I had intended to switch my hockey brain off for a bit, with the understanding I’d be hanging around a rink watching practices and covering live games for the next few days.

Then Rudy Gobert tested positive, the NBA suspended its season and reality smacked like a Mack Truck. My beloved Bob Odenkirk could wait.

I socially distanced myself from my family, crept down to the basement and glued myself to the final two periods of Jets-Oilers, knowing full well it would be the last hockey game I’d watch in real-time for a long while.

Funny how we start cherishing things when we know they’re running out.

We invite friends over to watch The Sopranos finale. We soak in the band’s encore. We savour the eighth piece of the black dragon roll. We ration the last spool of toilet paper in the house, apparently.

I have no rooting interest in the Jets or Oilers, but I was overcome with the urge to lap up every second of the action because there was no way I’d have a Toronto Maple Leafs–Nashville Predators game to cover Thursday.

I started missing hockey before it left.

This morning I awoke to my nine-year-old son on the iPad. He was sucked into a highlight package of Tuesday’s Carolina Hurricanes–Detroit Red Wings game. Our routine is catching up on the previous night’s highlights over cereal.

“Hey, Willie. You know there were no games last night. You remember the NHL stopped, right?” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” he replied. “There was nothing new, so I started working my way backward.”

In that moment, I didn’t have the heart to tell the boy his minor atom playoff games had been cancelled. So, I put that info on pause.

2. “You don’t close the door to any idea.”

Those words came from Prime Minister Trudeau on Friday. He was talking about the country’s COVID-19 strategy, of course, but that same openness to brainstorming should be applied when (fingers crossed) the NHL tries to squeeze in a 2020 post-season and award the Stanley Cup.

Hey, it’s not like the league has a history of keeping its playoff format unchanged.

If Wednesday’s Ottawa Senators-Los Angeles Kings tilt was indeed the final game of the 2019-20 regular season, here is how the playoff brackets would look (according to points percentage, the only fair way considering the differences in games played).

Eastern Conference
Bruins (.714) vs. Islanders (.588)
Lightning (.657) vs. Maple Leafs (.576)

Capitals (.652) vs. Hurricanes (.596)
Flyers (.645) vs. Penguins (.623)

Just outside: Blue Jackets (.579), Panthers (.565), Rangers (.564)

Western Conference
Blues (.662) vs. Flames (.564)
Avalanche (.657) vs. Stars (.594)

Golden Knights (.606) vs. Predators (.595)
Oilers (.585) vs. Canucks (.565)

Just outside: Jets (.563), Wild (.558), Coyotes (.529)

Off the top, an easy modification is to reduce all series to best of five (except, if possible, the Cup Final).

More painful would be chopping the playoff-qualification line to the top-four teams per conference, instead of the top eight.

Further, we’d love to see the six teams just outside of the playoff bubble, get an opportunity to play in via a handful of regular-season games or some sort of wild-card, play-in mini-tournament. Restrict it to two sites, one in the East, one in the West.

It feels unjust to not allow the following clubs a last gasp without them knowing they’re literally in must-win mode. Maybe they pull a goalie in a tied game. Or maybe a hurting player guts through pain. A star goalie willing to play back-to-back. Desperation gives us different results.

Parity has given us races that can be swung one way or another with just one score. Heck, the Jets are a 0.001 points percentage away from supplanting the Flames in the second wild-card spot. It’d be a shame if they’re deprived one final shot.

“Everything for consideration is on the table,” commissioner Gary Bettman told Hockey Central at Noon Friday of the playoff possibilities. “My hope and expectation is that we can finish the season in some form and award the Stanley Cup.”

3. Flip the standings page upside down, and you discover another issue that’ll be needed to sort through.

While the aggressively tanking Red Wings managed to lock up 31st place — and the highest draft lottery odds (an 18.5 per cent chance at first overall) — prior to the pause, a scant two standings points separated the 30th-place Senators, 29th-place Sharks and 28th-place Kings.

Only a 10-point gap divided the Sens from the 23rd-place Blackhawks, who would now have just a five per cent shot at winning the lottery. Every ball in the hopper matters.

While on the surface it’s easy to dismiss games involving the bottom-10-or-so teams as meaningless, they have meaning for other reasons.

4. If 2019-20 hockey does return, the timing of this “pause” — a much gentler term than “suspension,” eh? — could actually serve to benefit a few teams with Stanley Cup dreams.

Generally, bumps and bruises are being given time to heal. As a result, fans could be treated to a faster, fresher on-ice product.

More specifically, consider what a pushed-back schedule could do for contenders with injuries to key players. Some examples: Canucks (Jacob Markstrom), Lightning (Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos), Blues (Vladimir Tarasenko), Golden Knights (Mark Stone), Maple Leafs (Jake Muzzin, Ilya Mikheyev), Bruins (Torey Krug), Avalanche (Nathan MacKinnon), Hurricanes (Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Sami Vatanen), Blue Jackets (pretty much everybody).

5. It should go without saying that health and safety comes first, second and third, but in this vacuum, we can see great benefit to being the first sport back on-air.

Junkies will be craving live events, and with people spending more time on the couch, the eyeballs will be ready.

The danger, of course, is coming back too soon and having to hit pause again. It’ll be fascinating to see not just when leagues get going again but how.

6. Bettman states the NHL intends to play full 82-game regular season in 2020-21, unless the pandemic continues.

So much has already been invested into this season — some clubs have played 71 games — that personally I’d rather see it through to completion, even if 2020-21 had to get truncated a bit. At least then everyone would know the stakes going in, like the 2012-13 lockout.

Not only are these playoff races tight, but some fascinating individual stories are in danger of coming to a premature conclusion. The Rocket Richard Trophy sprint has three players — David Pastrnak, Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews — within a goal of each other. Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are neck-and-neck for the Calder. And Leon Draisaitl has an outside chance of becoming the first Triple Crown winner (goals, assists and points) since Mario Lemieux in 1996.

Were this season to trickle past July 1, things could get complicated. Impending free agents would have to sign off on extending their contracts beyond June 30, for example, but Brian Burke has said pushing back free agency is a relatively manageable hurdle.

More complicated might be maintaining decent ice in warm-weather cities in the heat of July and/or August.

7. Albeit not of the game variety, there is still some fresh hockey content floating out there. The NHL’s new Men in Blazers on Ice YouTube interview series is a fun, breezy time-killer enriched by Roger Bennett’s accent.

The best part of Episode 1 is T.J. Oshie breaking down his pre-game ritual…

…and Matthews flashing back to his four-goal NHL debut highlights Episode 2:

8. OK, time for some hockey notes because it feels important familiar.

Travis Dermott has had a trying campaign returning from off-season shoulder surgery. With Jake Gardiner moving on, this was supposed to be the winter the young left-shot with the quick switch and graceful stride was supposed to soar into the Maple Leafs’ top-four and establish himself as an integral cog of the blue line for years to come.

His trajectory wasn’t so smooth, however, and the way rehab mate Zach Hyman exploded out the gate from his injury return provided quite the contrast.

Yet there was Dermott out protecting the Leafs’ one-goal lead Tuesday in the club’s most important regular-season game against Tampa Bay. And there was Dermott skating a game-high 25:06 that night, his seventh consecutive game with 20 minutes plus.

Being counted on to hold the fort in the pressure cooker that is 6-on-5 is a role the 23-year-old is still getting accustomed to.

“It can definitely be nerve-racking at times,” Dermott said. “You just try to keep your mind clear of all the nerves and stresses that can be out there. It’s kind of just rely on everything that we’ve been taught.”

Dermott was a dash-4 last season. He now leads all Leafs defenders in plus/minus with a positive-14 rating. Recent left-side injuries to Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly increased his role by necessity, but his responding well to the pressure has been a boon for the impending RFA’s conviction.

“I’ve never really been that guy that’s been out there last minute, so getting the opportunity to be out there the last couple games here has felt really nice,” Dermott said. “It really gives you that push and that confidence that coaches trust you enough to put you out in the last minute, and you really start believing that you can do it.”

When coach Sheldon Keefe arrived, he said he wanted to see more from Dermott. This week the coach’s tune was more complimentary than challenging.

“He’s stepped up and done a really good job,” Keefe said Wednesday. “He’s earned that through the fact he’s improved his play and his confidence, and a lot of its come through the additional opportunities that we’ve given him.”

9. Quote of the Week goes to Reilly Smith, memorably traded by the Florida Panthers to the Vegas Golden Knights at the 2017 expansion draft:

Zing!

10. This flew way under the radar — for good reason — but we loved Cam Atkinson creating and handing out these TORTS 2020 three-quarter-sleeve T-shirts for all his Blue Jackets teammates.

(Columbus, we remind you, far and away leads the NHL in man-games lost — a staggering 352, not including Brandon Dubinsky — yet was still firmly in the wild-card hunt the day the music died.)

Atkinson gave John Tortorella one of the shirts, too.

“I left one at his table before they got back from the road trip,” Atkinson told reporters. “As you can imagine, he was like, ‘Who the eff did this?’ I said, ‘I did.’ He was laughing.”

Buy one for yourself here.

11. There is a palpable difference talking to Frederik Andersen when he’s on his A-game and when he’s seeing his save percentage slip.

The Leafs goaltender had found his groove before the pause and was happy to chat after the club’s final practice Wednesday. Andersen said he “definitely” performs better with emotion.

“There has to be some sort of like a feeling where you want to leave everything out there,” he explained. “As a goalie, I’m not going to be the loudest guy in the room. I’m playing a different sport than the other guys, technically.

“The way I lead is just by playing my heart out.”

And by opening his wallet. When the Leafs toured Florida at the end of February, Andersen grabbed the dinner bill for the whole team in Tampa.

“He does stuff like that yearly, and I think it’s something that guys really appreciate and that other guys do as well,” Matthews said. “Stuff like that and keeping the group close and doing kind of outings and stuff like that is extremely important, especially at this point in the season.”

Besides the guys with letters on their chest — Matthews, Rielly, Mitch Marner and John Tavares — Toronto’s official leadership group includes Muzzin, Hyman and Andersen.

Foremost in how a goaltender should lead, according to Keefe, is through consistent preparation, demeanour and performance. That instills a confidence from the net out.

“He’s not a guy that speaks a lot, but he is a guy that when he speaks, he’s got meaningful things to say. You listen. You pay attention to it,” Keefe said. “As a part of our leadership group, when we have our discussions, he’s there and he weighs in on different things that are happening with the team, and you respect his experience and his perspective on things.”

12. When you need a smile, remember how Gritty brilliantly trolled Brad Marchand during the Flyers’ last game played.

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