Well, here we are.
The NHL followed the NBA’s lead on Thursday afternoon, announcing that play would be suspended for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With governments banning large gatherings, this kind of stoppage was inevitable, and Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert being tested positive for the virus was the nail in the coffin.
There’s simply no way professional sports leagues can continue to operate right now. Large gatherings like this cause a massive risk not only for those who attend them but for exponentially spreading the disease too. There’s also the players, many of which have families with young children, who shouldn’t be playing a physical game when there’s such a contagious virus going around.
It sucks, but it’s reality. Health and safety comes first. There’s no argument otherwise.
At this point, all we can do is wait. It’s virtually impossible to plan exactly how the next few weeks or months are going to go because things can change incredibly quickly. I mean, just a week ago, the idea of actually cancelling games seemed far-fetched. A few days ago, the wildest idea out there was playing games in front of an empty stadium. Who knows what things will look like a week from now.
But what I do know is that everybody wants to see playoff hockey. You want to see playoff hockey, I want to see playoff hockey, the players want to play playoff hockey, the media wants to televise and report on playoff hockey, and the owners and the league want to make money off of playoff hockey. It may end up being impossible, which would be unfortunate but understandable, but the league will surely do everything realistically in its power to execute playoff hockey in some capacity.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday FRIDAY EDITION question. Where do we go from here? How can the league make the playoffs work?
Again, we don’t know what landscape we’re going to be dealing with in even just a few days, making this whole thing incredibly difficult to get your head around. An outright cancellation of the 2020 Stanley Cup, much like the one in 1919 due to the Spanish Influenza outbreak, is certainly a possibility. But, still, it’s worth talking about. Let’s get our ideas out there for how the NHL can and should move forward and how we can make the playoffs happen.
The schedule would have seen the regular season go until April 4, 2020. The playoffs would have begun shortly after that, going until mid-June. The draft is scheduled to be on June 26 and 27, with free agency, as always beginning on July 1.
As part of their due diligence process, the league has asked teams to provide arena availability through the end of July. At the very least, this shows the league is willing to be flexible when it comes to pushing everything back in order to fit playoffs in later on. In a somewhat similar vein, the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to begin in late July, are potentially being moved back to the fall.
Of course, an issue for the NHL is a bunch of contracts are going to come to an end on July 1. So if, for example, the league was able to resume play in mid-June, they would have players playing on contracts that expired during the playoffs.
I’m nowhere near an expert in contract law, but I’m willing to guess that the Players’ Association would be flexible in this situation. NHL players have a certain percentage of their salaries put into an escrow account until the league can determine how much hockey-related revenue needs to be generated in order to ensure a 50/50 split. Losing the hockey-related revenue of the playoffs would be a massive dent for the players in terms of making the money they signed for.
If the players and the league are flexible on the free agency matter, it allows for the possibility of playing the playoffs into July, which opens up quite a bit more room to make it work.
Another issue is the current standings. It’s hard to imagine resuming the regular season at this point. If the NHL is going to resume in 2019-20, it’ll more than likely be for the playoffs, and nothing more. There’s talk that the league could just use the current standings but sort by points percentage as some teams have played more games than others.
But is that fair? The races in both the Western and Eastern Conferences were incredibly tight before the season got put on pause and some teams would then miss out by a fraction of a percentage point. Rather than doing the standard four rounds of seven-game playoff series, the league could opt to get more creative in a time like this.
How about expanding the playoffs to include more of these bubble teams? Have four wild-card teams in each Conference, creating four wild-card play-in rounds. Make them a three-game series that effectively get to play the role of the stretch run for the bubble teams in a quick, head-to-head series.
The winners of the wild-card games would then go on to play the division winners, while the two- and three-seeded teams in the division faced off as normal. These could be five-game series to accommodate for the time needed to fit in the wild-card round. After that, carry on as usual. If time is of the essence, make the next two rounds five games and make the Stanley Cup Final the only seven-game series.
These are wildly unpredictable times to the league is going to have to show flexibility in order to manage to fit the playoffs in. The draft and free agency will likely have to be pushed back, there will have to be some kind of solution when it comes to the standings because there very likely won’t be room for any more regular-season games, playoff series might have to be shorter.
Maybe I’ve got it all backwards. Maybe the playoffs need to involve fewer teams. Maybe only the top two teams in each division make it in and we plow through an eight-team playoff with five-game series. It’ll be incredibly hard to execute 100+ games of hockey in July with players expected to be back at training camp in September for 2020-21.
But, whatever happens, something is better than nothing. So long as it’s doable, we would all love to see playoff hockey. At the end of the day, health and safety comes first, but the league needs to be prepared to go out of its comfort zone in order to make something work.
What say you, Nation? What are your thoughts on this whole thing? What happens next? I know it’s a virtually impossible situation to predict, but it’s something to talk about. I find in stressful times like this, it’s helpful to remain optimistic and have something to look forward to.