It’s starting to look like the NHL is inching closer to settling on its plan for a return to play format, and the leading idea on how to resume the season and settle the disparity between points percentage and standings position is to involve a whopping 24 teams, with a play-in round to make the usual 16 teams competing in the playoffs.
The top-four teams in each conference would get a bye through that play-in, with the teams ranked fifth through 12th battling in a series of best-of-five matchups to decide who makes the actual playoffs.
Elliotte Friedman broke down what the matchups would look like in both the East and West, but if this happens there are some big question marks for a couple of teams that might put some asterisks on whatever happens this season.
Looking at how teams were playing recently, before the league shutdown, we can look at the proposed matchups this play-in would produce, and see which teams are in a good position and which ones aren’t.
Who are the biggest winners?
The biggest winners of this play-in format by far are the top-four teams in each conference. Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas all earned their positions during the season so it makes sense they benefit the most, but not only are they getting the best seeding, no matter what all their potential opponents will face an extra round of attrition.
That’s obvious, though, so excluding the top-eight teams, let’s figure out which teams benefit the most from this format.
Of all the teams that have an opportunity because of the play-in, the most dangerous might be the Minnesota Wild. Sneakily a very good team that was undone by a disastrously awful season from Devan Dubnyk, the Wild have been making up ground since going to Alex Stalock a little bit more often. Stalock still hasn’t been great, giving the Wild a league average save percentage despite playing behind one of the league’s best defences, but average is really all the Wild need to find success.
In their opponents, the Wild would find a Canucks team that was brilliant to start the season but has had weaknesses exposed over the course of the year, including a league-worst rush chance differential that would give the Wild a specific area to focus on and exploit.
The Canucks would have a gigantic advantage in goal if Jacob Markstrom is fully recovered from the injury that took him out in late February, but without the ability to work out with team trainers it’s very possible that Markstrom is either behind schedule or would come back pretty rusty to start.
The Canucks are very reliant on their goaltender and power play to get things working for them, and against this Wild team that’s so strong at even strength, they would be really up against it to advance past the play-in.
Which team gets hurt the most?
The Canucks were dealt a rough card for sure, but they put themselves on the edge anyway so I can’t say they’ve been given the roughest ride here. Overall, the team that would be getting dealt the worst hand from this proposed format would be the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins would draw the Montreal Canadiens in the play-in round and, like the Wild, Montreal has put up pretty excellent numbers this season despite not having a great record.
There were some rumblings from Larry Brooks that teams wouldn’t be happy about the possibility of facing a rested Carey Price in this playoff, which was met with sneers online considering Price has been underwhelming this season to put it mildly. However, I think a lot of Price’s struggles have come down to lack of rest and playing through injuries, and every time he’s been given the chance to rest a little, he’s come back strong. That is not a fun proposition for the Penguins to look at, especially since Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar would likely be recovered from their injuries by now.
I would still expect the Penguins to win this matchup based on the gap in top-end talent between the two teams, and the Penguins might even get Jake Guentzel back to top it off, but this is a matchup that could easily burn the Penguins.
It’s not the worst draw possible, but considering that the Penguins actually produced the seventh-best record in the NHL this season coming into the break, and the sixth-most regulation or overtime wins, that they have to play their way into the playoffs in this scenario likely causes a lot of consternation within the organization.
Dark horse pick
Maybe the most interesting possibility of all with this play-in is how much noise the Columbus Blue Jackets could make. Matched up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, on paper it looks like a crazy mismatch, with the high volume Leafs producing vastly more offence in the new year than the Blue Jackets in all game types, but the Blue Jackets mastered a very tight, low event style that held the fort while they dealt with a myriad of seemingly crippling injuries, and they’ve also had some stellar goaltending.
A rested Freddie Andersen might give Elvis Merzlikins a run for his money, but the Blue Jackets would also likely be seeing the returns of Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, and Dean Kukan.
The hard-nosed style the Blue Jackets play is a little similar to the Boston Bruins, something that has given the Leafs fits for years, so you have to wonder if the newly healthy Blue Jackets might be secret contenders should this template move forward.