The Coronavirus pandemic will soon usher in an NHL playoff format that is unlike anything fans have ever seen. On Tuesday, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league's plan to return to play via a 24-team playoff- officially concluding the 2019-20 regular season.
There is not yet a timetable for when the playoffs will begin, but the plan has effectively been set into motion. The regular season had previously been postponed since Mar. 12 and, due to the nature of the global pandemic, there was not a known date for the league to resume play. Fortunately, NHL teams had thus far played between 68 and 71 regular season games- which accounts for about 85 percent of the 2019-20 season.
With most of the regular season in the books, the playoff picture was pretty much set into stone; thankfully, the Predators had just squeezed in through the front door with their win over Montreal on Mar. 10.
However, with all 31 NHL teams being owed between 11 and 14 games to prove their true playoff seeding, building in an extra eight spots to an already exceptional playoff plan was likely the best way to achieve that fairness. Having 24 teams vying for the Stanley Cup at once has already been a major point of contention. On Friday, the NHL Player's Association held a vote to either pass or veto the format- Tampa Bay and Carolina (both of whom had already qualified for the standard, 16-team playoff) were the only teams to vote against the proposal.
The primary argument against the 24-team format is that it gives playoff rights to teams who haven't truly earned it. Integrity, in this situation, is the name of the game. Matt Duchene asserted that a traditional playoff would be the only honorable route to take, saying that the winners of the 2020 Stanley Cup would likely always be thought of as gimmicky, "COVID Cup" winners. Every name currently engraved on the Stanley Cup had to endure an 82-game regular season plus 20 or more playoff games to have that honor. Whoever lifts the Cup this year will not be able to claim that same rite of passage.
The other side of the coin argues that having 24 teams play for the Cup is a huge parity booster for the league. Think about it: the eight "COVID" teams that were added into the mix have a unique, fleeting opportunity to prove themselves against the Goliaths of the league. If they succeed, cool. If they fail, well, our expectations were never high. And it's not like upsets don't happen or aren't as valid as predictable playoff wins. Hell, the Preds were the 16th seed in 2017 yet were able to not only beat, but sweep the first-seeded, Western Conference-leading Blackhawks. Just last year the 15th-seed Blue Jackets swept and dismantled the 128-point Lightning- who just happen to be one of the best single-season teams in NHL history.
Yeah, it's a little bogus that the Blackhawks are going to be included in this 24-team playoff- but if they can find a way to overcome Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers in the qualifying round, like it or not, they ultimately deserve to move on. So, if Tampa Bay and Carolina don't like the format we've all been collectively forced into, simply don't get beat. After all, they will both be the better seeds in the first round.
As Ryan Johansen said the day before the vote, "I don’t think there’s going to be a perfect scenario where everyone’s super excited about. As long as everybody can agree and be happy with the decision that will be made, that’s really all that matters.”
Each conference's top four teams will play each other in non-elimination, Round Robin fashion (three games for each team) to determine the seeding for the first round. They are currently positioned as follows:
Eastern Conference Top-Four
Tampa Bay Lightning
Western Conference Top-Four
St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights
The remaining eight teams will play in a best-of-five qualifying round before officially beginning the first round. Those matchups will be as follows:
Eastern Conference Qualifying Round
#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens
#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers
#7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers
#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets
Western Conference Qualifying Round
#5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks
#6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes
#7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild
#8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets
It has been decided among league officials to hold all playoff games in two "hub cities"- one for each conference. The current candidates for the hub cities are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver. Given the unpredictable circumstances of the virus- as well as the variable amount of testing equipment and differentiating government mandates- the list of hub cities has not been narrowed down yet.
Whenever the playoffs may begin, the Preds will play the Coyotes right off the bat. The teams played only two games against each other this season, rather than their typical three (they were set to face off again on Mar. 28). The Preds went 1-1-0 on the season series with the Coyotes, scoring five goals and allowing seven. Arizona's Phil Kessel and Nick Schmaltz were the team's top performers versus the Preds this season, with the former scoring two goals and the latter notching three assists.
The last time the Preds played the Coyotes in the playoffs was 2012. The then-Phoenix Coyotes took the Preds out in five games in the second round. If the top-four seeds were to remain the same and the Preds were to beat the Coyotes this year, they would play Vegas in the first round of the playoffs.