If you'd asked anyone at the beginning of the NHL season, "What's going to be the biggest surprise in the league this year?", a worldwide viral pandemic that postpones the seasons of all professional sports for weeks would certainly not have been a common answer.
Just hours after the NBA elected to suspend their season after two Utah Jazz players- Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell- tested positive for COVID-19, the NHL followed suit with Commissioner Gary Bettman announcing the decision on Thursday. Ultimately, it was the right call. COVID-19 is a legitimate public health emergency, and given the large crowds that pack into the NHL and NBA's shared arenas and facilities on a near-daily basis, the risk of holding games was simply too volatile. Now with the MLB and MLS suspending their seasons as well, Americans will be navigating a world without sports for the next several weeks.
As if there was ever a "good" time for a viral outbreak, COVID-19's timing could probably not be worse for the NHL. With the playoffs rapidly approaching in mid-April, many teams' hopes to qualify hung directly in the balance of the roughly 15 games left to play in the season- including the Nashville Predators. The 2020 NHL Playoffs are going to be expected to maintain a fair qualification process, and a deluge of speculation as to how that's going to work given the current circumstances has rained down on the league's front offices.
90 and 100-point teams like Boston, St. Louis, Washington, and Colorado probably couldn't care less if the season ended today or not because making the playoffs is essentially inevitable for them. Detroit, San Jose, and Ottawa are already packing their golf bags for the offseason. For borderline teams like Nashville, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Carolina, and Columbus, however, those last 15 games will determine the fates of their seasons.
There have been several playoff formats proposed by a number of third-parties (as of now, Bettman has not confirmed any new format or qualification system)- some of which would allow the Preds to vie for the Stanley Cup, and others that would disqualify them entirely.
Let's take a look at a few of them and weigh what it would mean for the Preds:
No, this is not the literal name for this given scenario, but it sounds the most accurate. If the NHL is able to safely resume the season within two weeks of the suspension, the Preds would have exactly six games to secure a playoff spot- starting at home on Mar. 26 against Los Angeles. The Preds would have to come off a two-week quarantine and eke wins out of tough road games in Philadelphia and Colorado, as well as a dealbreaker against Minnesota on the finale of the regular season. Obviously, this would not be an ideal scenario for the Preds. They would be forced to forfeit a significant amount of crucial ice time and simply accept the results of a 75-game season.
Hockey In July
Given the same two-week-return situation, Bettman has also hinted that an extension for the 2019-20 season is an option the NHL is considering. In this scenario, whenever the COVID-19 suspension is lifted is when the NHL will just pick up where they left off, finishing the full 82-game season and likely awarding the Stanley Cup in July. Instead of playing six incredibly high-stakes games and hoping Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Minnesota can't keep up, the Preds- as well as every NHL team- will play the 11 to 14 remaining games in their regular season schedule and finish wherever they finish. Even with this scenario resulting in a truncated offseason, it is likely the fairest route the NHL could take. However, if the COVID-19 suspension lasts for a whole month or more, this plan could be taken off the table.
Especially if the season suspension lasts longer than a month, Bettman could conceivably opt to start the playoffs with the current set of teams that either, a) have the most wins, or b) have the most points. Neither situations are exceptionally likely (or fair) unless COVID-19 puts the NHL schedule in dire straits, but are still very much worth examining. If the league were to go with the wins-based playoff format, the Preds would be eliminated from contention. The Preds, Canucks, and Wild have all played the same number of games- 69- but the Canucks have won 36 games, whereas the Preds and Wild both have 35 wins. The Preds currently sit in the Western Conference's second Wild Card spot, but by a very, very thin hair that could be given to Vancouver instead.
Alternatively, the NHL could elect to start the playoffs on a points-based qualification system. In this case, the Preds would be in playoff contention. The Preds and Canucks also have the same number of points- 78- but there's a catch that would work in the Preds' favor: the Preds have one fewer regulation loss than the Canucks, putting their 35-26-8 record statistically ahead of Vancouver's 36-27-6 record. Basically, the points-based option would just set the current playoff picture into motion.
Any way you slice it, the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions are always going to have an asterisk next to their names, much like the lockout-year champions of New Jersey in 1995 and Chicago in 2013. There's always going to be that unexpected two-week "break" in the middle of March that may or may not have thrown a lot of wrenches in a lot of wheels. One way or another, Gary Bettman and the entire NHL have expressed a concrete desire to award the Cup to someone.
It's a long shot, but the Preds just might have some 2017 magic left in their tanks.