First things first: the NHL made the right decision to shut down the league, however temporarily, sooner rather than later. Working to “flatten the curve” in cases of Covid-19 is being responsible to everyone, not just hockey fans. But being hockey fans, let’s indulge in First World Problems and talk about us for a bit. What are some possible scenarios for whenever the 2019-20 NHL Season restarts?
Possible Options for the 2019-20 NHL Season
Officially, the NHL is on hiatus rather than canceled. This means that it’s keeping the possibility of restarting the season available. A lot is going to have to go right for that to happen, as each arena is under the jurisdiction of different municipalities. As we saw with the Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks their municipalities decided to be proactive. But that’s because the teams themselves were reluctant to leave fans out until ordered to do so.
Once the NBA closed their doors, though, the NHL quickly followed suit. On March 12, the league officially announced they would be going on hiatus.
This has left a lot of questions about how the season will resolve itself. Not all teams have played an equal number of games, and when a return happens is totally unpredictable. What would playoffs look like if the league resumed? Do regular-season games continue? Should play continue through July 1st, what happens to free agents only signed to that date?
Enough with the facts – let’s get on with the Unseemly Speculation!
Best Case: Everything’s Great!
In the best-case scenario, everything runs as smoothly as possible in North America. Remaining at home for a few weeks has helped with contagion vectors. People are happy to stay away from work and any larger gatherings. The population remains cooperative and calm. The weather becomes rainy with a chance of meatballs.
Okay, so maybe it’s not THAT unlikely (everyone staying calm? Have you BEEN to Costco recently!?) but with a lot of luck and a little politeness, this may pass relatively quickly. So let’s say it’s the best of all possible NHL scenarios and the closure only lasts until the end of the month.
Okay, every team in the league has played between 68 and 71 games. Missing three weeks would push the regular season into the last week of April. That in itself isn’t too bad, but it could be difficult to find places to play. Scheduling, already one of the hardest jobs in the league, would have to work miracles, convincing arena owners to find spots for hockey when they weren’t expecting it. There is likely some flexibility, as no team can really go into a season absolutely promising that they will be in the playoffs.
The NHL is the predominant tenant for most places in Canada, but that’s not always the case in the US. Still, neutral sites might get called in, or someone could finish the season with more road games than other teams. It could take more than 30 days to get everyone to 82 games. But it’s possible.
Pros: Each team gets their full contingent of games. We know what the playoff seeding is, and the fans get their shows.
Cons: Uh, how long is the incubation/quarantine period again? Fourteen days? Yeah, this one isn’t likely. Plus if you think the players were concerned with the All-Star Break being too long…
Good Cases: Everything’s, Y’know, Okay!
The most likely of all possible NHL scenarios is some variant of these ones. The league still shuts down for a while and works out what the season and playoffs will look like before opening up again. The regular season is almost certainly getting shortened, and some of the playoffs could be, too.
Short Regular Season
The league resumes play until all teams are up to 72 games. Teams that are close to the edge still have a chance to either solidify their position (Winnipeg Jets) or grab a spot (New York Islanders). Teams that have already played 71 games might get annoyed by virtue of having the fewest chances to get points, but guess what? If they played better during the regular season they wouldn’t be a bubble team in the first place.
A full slate of playoff games means the Stanley Cup gets awarded in early July at the latest. Not miserable.
Pros: A fair shake all around. Teams surging going into the shutdown can tell their fans they “would have made it if only…” Exactly what teams who fall short tell their fans every year.
Cons: Hockey in July. Oof. Players get very little downtime in their off-season, something veterans will NOT be happy with. Clubs with veteran-heavy teams – like ones ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup – should look for ways to get their older players some more recovery time.
Short Regular Season II: Electric Boogaloo
The league returns in a month but decides to go straight into the playoffs. Obviously, since the league isn’t playing any more games, standings remain where they are.
One or two teams may have an issue with that.
The obvious objection is that there are teams who have played fewer games sitting on the edge of a Wild Card slot. Even teams who made it may have preferred different matchups for the first round and want the chance to change it. Or they will want a chance for home ice through at least the first round. But let’s say the league overrules their protests and the playoffs begin immediately. How do they count the points? There are a few possible NHL scenarios that can be used, all guaranteed to make someone unhappy.
Currently, standings are based on total points. In the event of a tie, the team with more regulation wins is given the higher seeding. Despite what you see on TSN or Sportsnet, the Nashville Predators are currently in the second Wild Card slot, not the Vancouver Canucks. This is because on the new last day of the season, Vancouver’s win was in overtime and Winnipeg’s was in regulation. Both of the television sites have the 2018-2019 rules where regulation or overtime wins was the first tiebreaker. That is now the second tiebreaker, followed by total regulation, overtime, and shootout wins.
Fun With Math
If the league goes by total points percentage, then Vancouver takes the Calgary Flames‘ position at third in the Pacific division. The Flames drop to a Wild Card position, and Winnipeg is out. Nashville and Vancouver are in with a .565 win percentage, Calgary with a .564 win percentage, and the Jets are out with a .564 win percentage. Think Winnipeg fans would be happy with that result?
Pros: More-or-less the same schedule as expected pre-shutdown. Let us never talk of this again.
Cons: Whooo, boy! There are going to be some furious teams and fans over who makes it or not.
Short Regular Season III: You Get Playoffs! And YOU Get Playoffs!
One way to avoid relying on predictions is by letting the bottom teams play for their dinner. The two current Wild Card teams play in a round-robin with the two teams below them, and that determines who the qualifiers are. Winnipeg and Nashville would play against Vancouver and the Minnesota Wild in the West, and the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets would defend their spots against the New York Islanders and New York Rangers.
Pros: Playoffs are the best part of the season anyway, right? Here’s even more of them!
Cons: The Florida Panthers are one point behind the Rangers with a game in hand and would miss the playoff play-in.
Use one of the methods above for the regular season, but the playoffs are shorter. Reducing the first few rounds to a best-of-three or best-of-five introduces a bit more luck than the normal best-of-seven, but will get the league to the finals in a reasonable amount of time. And it’s not like that hasn’t happened before. In the 1974-75 season, the preliminary round was a best-of-three for the second- and third-place teams in a division. The top teams were given a bye.
Pros: Think winning four games is a lot of pressure? Just wait until it’s two!
Cons: This one will make the owners angry because players aren’t paid for the playoffs. Shorter schedules aren’t what they want for a gate-driven league at its most profitable time of the year!
Bad Case: Everything’s relative
If the delay continues into late Spring, odds get better and better that the season will be lost entirely. Bad luck for the teams banking on making it this year and mortgaged the house to do so, but safety first. Of the possible NHL scenarios, this is the one no one wants to talk about just yet. It’s also the most likely if teams open practice facilities early – as some want to – and an infection is reported despite precautions. Or any of a dozen utterly unpredictable things between now and April which could increase current precautions.
Let’s keep it light, okay, kids? Hockey is just a sport. We can go without it for a little while. Or if not, you can pick up any one of dozens of computer games simulating the season. Heck, play with all the different possible NHL scenarios you can think of while you’re at it.
In the meantime, anyone have a Sega Genesis handy? Lemme get my copy of NHL ’93…