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Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Daly Outlines NHL Playoff Format

Hello June, nice to see you. NHL playoffs could return in late July, which is just over a month away, but before that June will provide us with an actual hockey event: the draft lottery. How intriguing and suspenseful would it be if a team seeded 8-15 won the lottery?

I realize it would stink for the seven teams not playing, but from a story line perspective it would amazing theatre. Even if the #2 or #3 pick goes to a team seeded 8-15, that means there will be a second lottery after the qualifying round (formerly known as the play-in round), and with all eight teams who lost in the qualifying round having equal odds, it would be riveting to see which team or teams ends up with a top-three draft pick.

Suddenly the draft lottery on June 26th is potentially meaningfully for 24 teams and their fans. Bring on the chaos.

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While the draft is a nice stepping stone, the playoffs are what most of us can’t wait for. I spoke with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly this past Friday and we got confirmation on a few details regarding the qualifying round, the playoffs as well as some statistical information.

Will the qualifying round be considered playoff stats?

“For statistical purposes they will be considered playoffs,” said Daly. “Obviously it is an interesting format. We have round-robin seeding games for eight teams and then we have the qualifying round for 16 teams.

“I’m not sure a one size fits all solution works here. So we will have to consider for what purposes these are playoffs and for what purposes they are something other than playoffs from many different aspects: player performance bonuses, transition rules we have to negotiate with the player’s association. All those things will need to be resolved ultimately.”

They will count historically as playoff statistics, as they should, but I don’t see why the qualifying round would count as a playoff round when it comes to bonuses. Mike Smith has a bonus in his contract that he get $125,000 if the Oilers make the playoffs. That was based on being one of 16 teams in the Dance, and should remain that way. If the Oilers defeat the Blackhawks (they should), then Smith get his bonus.

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Is pro-rating regular season stats for bonuses possible?

“For some of them probably and for some of them not,” said Daly. “We have done this before. We have had transition rules in the context of the shortened seasons. In 2013 we sat down with players, once we got an agreement on the season, and we had to figure out what having a 48-game season meant to those clauses, and we will do that again. I actually had some conversations with the union this morning.”

Again, using Mike Smith: He had a bonus for games played (minimum 30 minutes). He was due to earn $250,000 if he played 40 games. He needed to play four of the remaining 11 games to reach 40. Smith had played in 19 of the Oilers previous 30 games going back to January 1st, so it seems very reasonable to think he would have played four of the remaining 11 games.

This is a case where you can make a strong argument that pro-rating his stats is fair. Mainly because it is simply about minutes played, not performance, although he could soil the sheets and be pulled before playing 30 minutes, but that only happened once since January 1st, and in that game he still played 32 minutes.

An example where pro-rating stats might not be accurate is in regards to the James Neal/Milan Lucic trade. Neal needed two goals in his final 11 games to reach 21. Neal did have 19 goals in 55 games played this season, but he scored 11 in his first 14 games. He scored eight in his last 41 games.  If you prorate his season (19 in 55 games played) he was on pace to score 3.8 goals in his final 11 games. But if you use his most recent games (eight goals in 41 games) he was on pace to score 2.14 goals over the final 11 games.

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But arguably the most important stat to look at is his powerplay goals. Neal had 12 PP goals in the first 42 games of the season. Since January 1st he’s had zero, albeit he has only played 21 minutes on the PP.

I can understand pro-rating for games played, because the results of the game are irrelevant. In the case of Neal, it is about personal success and he was much more productive in the first half of the season.

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The most reasonable conclusion for the Neal/Lucic trade is the Flames receive the Oilers’ third round pick, but Edmonton receives a compensatory pick at the end of the third round. Neal was close to reaching his goal total, but there was no guarantee he would do it so I’d give the Oilers a compensatory pick at the end of the third round. That seems logical to me.

When will games be played during the qualifying round?

“The start time will totally depend where you are (time zone wise),” said Daly. “But it will be very much like the Olympic tournament, with three games a day and start times will be 12 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. If an overtime game goes long, then we would have to push back the start time of the next game.”

This is why the NHL needs one hub city to be in the eastern time zone. If you had Vegas and Edmonton, for instance, and the games started at 12, 4:30 and 9 local time, that means the Edmonton games would begin at 2 p.m. 6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT, while the games in Vegas would begin at 3 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and midnight EDT. That would severely reduce TV numbers for east teams. No way that happens.

The eastern conference needs to be based in the east, and with the protesting and looting occurring in Pittsburgh currently, Toronto might suddenly be the front runner to host the eastern hub.

Vegas makes a lot of sense due to hotel space, but being in the Pacific Time zone is a challenge for TV viewers, especially in the central time zone.

Considering that the three-game round robin involving St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas and Vegas will use regular season overtime rules, there is no worry those games will carry over (time wise) into the next game. It makes the most sense to play these games at either of noon or 4:30 p.m., so there is only one game per day that possibly could go into OT and delay the start of the next game.

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However, that means every night one central-based team will have their game starting at 11 p.m. CDT for their fans.

I’ve argued the NHL erred in their playoff format by going with the top-12 in each conference, instead of top-five in each division and two wildcard berths. That would have allowed for more divisional rivals playing each other in the qualifying round, and again in the first round of the playoffs. But under the current format, only one of the eight qualifying series has two divisional foes facing each other. It doesn’t impact the TV viewers in the eastern conference as all teams are in the same time zone, but it creates a possible TV nightmare for teams in the west.

Look at the qualifying round matchups:

Chicago (CDT). v. Edmonton (MDT) 
Winnipeg (CDT) v. Calgary (MDT).
Minnesota (CDT) v. Vancouver (PDT)
Nashville (CDT) v. Arizona (PDT).***

**Arizona is technically considered MST — they don’t change time zones — but currently they are the same time as Vegas and Vancouver (PDT), so I listed them as that for consistency.

I think we agree playing the round robin games in either of the first two time slots of the day makes the most sense to limit the risk of a game going into double or triple OT.

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So that means each night in Las Vegas at 9 p.m. PDT, one of the four aforementioned games will start. Only Arizona and Vancouver fans would have that game start at 9 p.m. their time; Edmonton and Calgary fans would start at 10 p.m., while Chicago, Winnipeg, Minnesota and Nashville fans would start watching at 11 p.m.

That would be a nightmare for TV ratings. Unless the NHL convinces players to start games at 10 a.m. Vegas time. That would be extremely rare considering we’ve never seen players start games that early.

I wonder if the time zone will work against Vegas and benefit Edmonton as a hub city.

If Edmonton hosts and the games then the late game will start at 9 p.m. MDT, which would be 8 p.m. for Vancouver and Arizona fans, and 10 p.m. for the four teams in the CDT.

If I’m Sportsnet or NBC, I want games starting as early as possible, so maybe having Chicago or Dallas as a hub city works best. Due to the current situation in Minneapolis, I don’t think they are a realistic possibility.

So a Chicago or Dallas hub city means the late game would start at 9 p.m. for the four teams in the central, 8 p.m. in Edmonton and Calgary and 7 p.m. for Vancouver and Arizona.

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OTHER NOTES…

May 27, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (right) and deputy commissioner Bill Daly (left) at a press conference before game one of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Daly confirmed the league is contemplating two exhibition games in the final week of training camp to allow teams to sharpen their skills. It isn’t confirmed but the players want this.
  • With training camps opening at the earliest on July 10th, and being three weeks in length, then August 1st is the earliest possible starting date for the qualifying round. It will be a best-of-five. The first round of the playoffs will also be five games.
  • Daly said the original plan was for the playoffs to be series of 5, 5, 7 and 7, but the players expressed interest to have it 5, 7, 7, and 7-game series. They haven’t decided yet which format to use, but right now, according to two sources I spoke with this morning, the players feel strongly about having the final three rounds all seven-game series. Possibly all four rounds.
  • I believe these playoffs might be the best we’ve seen in years. Most teams will be the healthiest they’ve ever been heading into the playoffs, and there will be no travel for the majority of the postseason. That extra rest could have players playing at a more feverish pace. I realize the qualifying round might be scrambled due to the players being off for four months, but their excitement to play for a Stanley Cup after four months should counter that and the rust will be gone by the time the playoffs begin.
  • The NHL is planning on starting next season later that usual. “Originally we planned to start in early November, but we feel we have the flexibility to start late in December and still have a full season,” said Daly. This makes sense, and the start date will connect to when fans can be in the building. No fans during the regular season would be a massive loss of revenue, and while it isn’t ideal to have playoff games without fans, the regular season is where the majority of their games are played and revenue is made. If health officials deem stadiums safe in November the NHL could start then. “You have to build in a period of time for an off-season, both for the players and the clubs, to conduct all the business necessary. We are looking at 45-55 days as a minimum for the off-season,” said Daly. So in theory if the Stanley Cup is awarded on September 30th, the 2020/2021 season could begin as early as November 15th based on Daly’s suggestion of a minimum 45 days.

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