There remain as many questions as answers as the NHL unveiled its return-to-play plan Tuesday, but give the league credit: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a road map is in place.
Sure, we don’t know whether the league will actually resume action paused on March 12, but the hope that 24 teams will begin training camps sometime in July, play games in two hub cities and hand out the Stanley Cup is trying to make the best of a horrible situation.
Although a second wave of the virus that has officially resulted in the death of approximately 350,000 people around the world could derail the NHL’s plan, some hope of normalcy in our lives is welcome news.
Even trying to decipher the draft-lottery system is a lot more fun than looking at the latest virus figures from Johns Hopkins University or being caught in the political vortex that’s resulted from it all.
As the NHL optimistically looks to the future, here are five takeaways from the restart plan that catch our eye:
1. It’s OK to think about dollars and cents
It’s easy to say the league wants to finish the season for no other reason than to collect as much sponsorship and television revenue as possible, but provided everyone is able to stay safe, that’s not a bad thing. It is a business that impacts the economy.
The teams have paid players the bulk of their annual salaries, so it’s fair for the owners to try recouping some money even without ticket sales and connected revenue from concessions, parking and souvenirs.
Hockey fans will happily tune in to the Stanley Cup sprint and be thankful for the distraction from all the negative we’ve survived.
2. It’s no debate: The Cup champ will be legitimate
It’s absurd to say whichever team hoists the Stanley Cup when the season ends should have an asterisk next to their crown. That’s not the case with the New Jersey Devils’ title from 1995, and it won’t be this year, either.
No matter what happens, the champion must win at least four series to claim that honor. (Count the qualifying-round series in which 16 teams must play, and it could mean winning five rounds.)
Don’t think for a second that any team will be given a free pass. In fact, with the layoff allowing most players to be 100 percent healthy, some underdogs will be even stronger than they would have been had life been normal.
3. Skewered in Buffalo
The poor Buffalo Sabres officially have missed the playoffs nine straight seasons, sidelined by the points-percentage format. Buffalo (.493 points percentage) was three points back of the Montreal Canadiens (.500) with two games in hand, but it won’t get a chance to erase that gap.
The other six teams eliminated on Tuesday (the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, New Jersey, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks) weren’t even remotely close to a playoff position, so they happily avoid the indignity of playing out the string. (The Devils had the same points, 68, and games played, 69, as the Sabres but were buried in the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.)
A saving grace for the downtrodden Sabres franchise would be a draft-lottery win, but not having a chance to skate in a playoff game is a tough consequence of an improvised system that never could be perfect.
4. Missed opportunity to renew a great rivalry
Other than the obvious of not being able to watch games live and in person, there aren’t many negatives.
Had the league gone straight into playoffs based on existing standings, though, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames would have renewed Battle of Alberta hostilities in the playoffs for the first time since 1991.
(We also miss out on a Pennsylvania showdown between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, but they last met in the postseason two years ago, so it’s not the same).
It’s possible these rivalries will be fired up after the qualifying round, but there are no guarantees.
5. Give the underdogs their due
The Columbus Blue Jackets were a bubble team when the games were halted. However, no team in the mix was as besieged by injuries as they were. Not far behind were the Winnipeg Jets.
The long layoff certainly gives everyone as much an opportunity to skate with a full roster as we’ve ever seen before the playoffs begin, so don’t be shocked if the Blue Jackets provide another opening-round upset.
Other teams to watch are the Minnesota Wild, who were finding their form just before time stood still, and the veteran-laden Chicago Blackhawks, who will face the young Oilers.
—By Randy Sportak, Field Level Media