The NHL is still making plans to restart the 2019-20 season and crown a Stanley Cup champion, and now we know some of the proposals the hockey league is taking seriously as the world hopes to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Hockey was one of several sports that had their seasons interrupted in March and would be in the middle of its postseason under normal circumstances. But as spring turns to summer and the sports calendar’s disruption starts to threaten the offseason, draft and 2020-21 campaign, leagues face tough decisions about whether to cancel the season altogether or find a way to finish things out and safely declare a champion.
According to Newsday, the league has narrowed its two remaining options for a season restart, with one plan involving a brief “regular season” conclusion and another that jumps directly into postseason play and a traditional 16-team playoff.
The first scenario includes 24 teams. Under this plan, the top four teams would play for playoff seeding and the bottom teams would have postseason play-in games.
The second plan would include only 16 teams heading straight into the playoffs, with no regular-season games salvaged.
It’s not clear how the standings for the returning teams in either scenario would be determined or where the games would be played.
The first plan may leave the 25th place Buffalo Sabres and teams worse than them out in the cold, but those squads were all but out of the playoff hunt and would have little incentive to play just to warm postseason-bound teams up. It would be a significant departure from the traditional eight team in each conference postseason format the league has had for decades, but it would provide a period of warm-up play for players who have been off the ice for months and would need considerable time to sharpen their skills.
The report notes that which plan — if any — the league can implement would depend on the timing around when a restart could get off the ground. That would imply the league prefers the 24-team format if there’s time in the calendar year, with a 16-team playoff only format being a last-ditch effort to save the season at all.
Several locations that have been relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic have apparently volunteered to host games, though team owners would undoubtedly want to have their teams playing in home markets if possible. It also seems unlikely that fans would be able to attend any of these games given the risks associated and stakes invested in limiting more interruptions if the season resumes. The league stressed that a decision has not been made, but that “every option” remains on the table.
“I think, as of now, every option we have considered remains on the table,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said via email. “Obviously, some may be being explored more extensively than others. But no decisions have been made.”
Looming over all of this is the ability to test players and what could happen if members of teams or their essential staff test positive for COVID-19 and what measures the league would have to take to ensure safety of those wherever they decide to play. Several members of the Ottawa Senators and undisclosed members of the Colorado Avalanche, for example, tested positive for COVID-19 in recent months and it’s likely others had positive tests that were not publicly disclosed.
Either way, it looks like the season is already over for the Sabres, Devils, Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Senators and Red Wings. But we knew that well before the COVID-19 pandemic actually stopped play.