The one thing that stands out about the NHL return-to-play format currently being discussed is it doesn’t include a meaningless game.
That’s because the top-four teams in each conference will still be jockeying for seeding even while receiving a “bye” directly into the playoffs. The proposed format would see Boston, Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia play each other in the East while St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas do so in the West, with the outcomes helping determine how those teams are seeded No. 1 through No. 4 to start the first round.
It also ensures those NHL heavyweights are given something to play for while the other 16 teams contest best-of five play-in series to determine their playoff opponents.
Now, before we go any further, it’s important to stress that this format hasn’t yet been finalized or approved. The NHLPA’s Executive Board will discuss the proposed framework during a call on Thursday night and ultimately has to sign off on any plan put into action. And of course nothing happens without the league’s blessing, too.
However, both sides are represented on the Return To Play Committee that has been hammering away at what the NHL should look like if it’s able to finish the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
They’ve ended up on a 24-team, two-conference format that could produce great theatre while still requiring the eventual Stanley Cup champion to win at least 16 playoff games.
Of note about the proposed format is that it would be bracketed similar to the NCAA tournament — somewhat lessening the sting if Boston or St. Louis weren’t to end up with the No. 1 seed after leading their respective conferences when the regular season was paused.
Any of the top-four teams in the East or West could actually end up facing the lowest remaining seed following the play-in round. For example, the No. 4 seed could face No. 12 Montreal (in the event the Canadiens pulled off an upset over No. 5 Pittsburgh) while the No. 1 seed would be left with the winner of No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus.
Sources say there was consideration given to taking the regular-season results and making that kind of upset more difficult — say putting Montreal down 1-0 to start its series or requiring it to sweep the Penguins to move on — but there was no formula that was deemed to make sense.
Perfect is not the goal in any decision made by the NHL right now. Gary Bettman has said there will be no fool proof solutions available as his league navigates this unusual landscape.
The return-to-play format under consideration includes six Canadian teams, five Original Six teams (the Canadiens, Blackhawks and Rangers would be excluded in a 20-team format) and everyone who had any hope of winning a championship when the 2019-20 season was halted.
And absolutely every game played would have a bearing on the chase for the Cup.
Under the circumstances, it’s hard to do much better than that.