Earlier this week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged the possibility that the league might not be able to finish its regular season — instead skipping ahead straight to the playoffs if and when play can resume in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The best thing and the easiest thing would be if at some point we could complete the regular season and then go into the playoffs as we normally do,” Bettman told NBCSN. “We understand that may not be possible. And that’s why we’re considering every conceivable alternative to deal with whatever the eventuality is.”
Those alternatives also could include playing the entire postseason at a single neutral site — including my hometown of Grand Forks, N.D., which would be the most surreal thing imaginable.
Nobody knows what will ultimately happen, but it would hardly be surprising to see some combination of a skip ahead to the playoffs and a neutral site come to fruition, especially the deeper we get into spring.
If so, the easiest thing to do would just be to cut off the standings at the top eight in each conference as they stand now, and say those are the playoff teams.
But would that be the most fair? Some teams have played easier schedules than others. Some have played more games than others. And many are separated by the thinnest of margins.
The Wild, for instance, would miss the postseason by just one point even though it was one of the hottest teams in the league before the shutdown.
Well, if everything apparently on the table — and all we have is time to come up with ideas — here’s my idea for how the NHL could structure its postseason to make things more fair without simply leaving worthy teams out in the cold, assuming the regular season does not resume in a meaningful way:
*The top two teams in each division at the time play was suspended in March are in, and they are seeded accordingly. They don’t have to do anything else. That’s four teams per conference — all of whom had at least a 93% chance of making the playoffs when play was halted (and many who were up above 99%): Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East; St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Edmonton in the West.
*To determine the other four spots in each conference, there’s a four-day tournament at the agreed-upon neutral site location.
First night: Third- and fourth-place teams from the two Eastern Conference divisions play each other: Toronto vs. Florida and Pittsburgh vs. Carolina. Winners of those games are in and get the No. 3 seed in their division.
Second night: Same thing, except with the Western Conference: Dallas vs. Winnipeg; Vancouver vs. Calgary. Now we have six teams in the playoffs from each conference.
Third night: The losers from the 3/4 games in the Eastern Conference play the teams with the next two highest point totals in the East (the Islanders and Blue Jackets). The winners of those games get the wild card spots. Losers are out.
Fourth night: Same thing, except in the West — with the two highest other teams being the Wild and Nashville. That would round out the field of eight in both conferences in just four nights, and it would give every team right now with at least a 33% chance of making the postseason (per Hockey Reference) a shot at getting in.
Teams that were elite (top two each division) would get in automatically. Teams that were more likely to make the playoffs (3 and 4 in each division) would have two chances to make it — once against each other for the No. 3 seed and once, if they lost, for the wild card spot. And the teams more on the fringes would get once chance, win or go home. All it would take is four days to decide it.
This is a strange plan, but it kind of works based on how the standings are right now. And remember: Nothing about any of what we are dealing with is normal right now, so we might as well try to make the best of a bad situation.