With the United States’ Center for Disease Control issuing a recommendation of a nationwide eight-week moratorium on gatherings of 50 or more people (and just to clarify, you need more than 50 people, even at minimum, to run empty-arena games), rumors abound of what the NHL can do, if anything, to save some form of 2019-2020 season while still remaining compliant with the CDC’s advice.
Let’s cut to the chase: It’s in the NHL’s best interests to do this, even if they just cut right to the playoffs and play them out on a condensed schedule (more on that in a moment), because failure to do so would result in a mess that the league would struggle to clean up in time for the next season. We’re going into uncharted territory here. While the NHL has an abundance of experience with lockout-shortened and even lockout-lost seasons, the only example we have of a season being cancelled in-progress comes in the form of the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans, and that’s hardly a case study to glean anything of value from in 2020.
If no season is played through to a conclusion and the Stanley Cup goes unawarded, there’s a lot of things that will have to be unpacked in a very short time, some as early as the June (?) NHL Draft, but almost all in time for the start of the 2020-2021 training camp in September. After all, a lot of teams went all-in on a potential Stanley Cup run, and to not even have a chance to play the games out after having given up very real assets to shore up their lineups, the league would have a very hard time making the case that those teams are owed nothing.
What do you do? Do you nullify all trades that involve expiring contracts, even though it would send some players awkwardly back to the clubs that dealt them? Do you bring back the concept of compensatory picks and just attempt to even things out as equitably as possible given the circumstances? What about the Patrick Marleaus and Zdeno Charas of the league, who may very well have been on the verge of leaving it all on the ice for one last run? Do you just apologize and ask them to try to find one more year in them, regardless of anything else?
I honestly don’t have any solid answers here, and I don’t imagine the NHL braintrust does, either, even when their feet undoubtedly get held to the coals by the players’ union. The best course of action, then, is to avoid having to conjure up any inevitably messy make-good altogether. To that point, I do have an idea.
The CDC’s prescription effectively makes professional organized Hockey impossible for eight weeks. That means that the earliest date to resume play would be May 10. There’s also an elephant in the room that is the Eastern Conference playoff picture: The New York Islanders are one point out of the second wildcard spot with two games in hand on the current occupants of that spot, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sitting in the first wildcard are the Carolina Hurricanes, who are tied with the Blue Jackets in points, but also hold two games in hand on them.
In other words, if you just go into the playoffs with the standings as they are right now, even dismissing any concerns from teams that are in the playoffs but might have otherwise had the chance to play for a better lot for themselves (which is frankly a negligible concern given the circumstances), the Islanders would have the most legitimate complaint of all. You can’t just boot Columbus, either, not just because it wouldn’t be worth having to listen to John Tortorella lose his mind over it, but because, games in hand be damned, they still do hold a legitimate claim to the second wildcard until played out of it.
What I propose, then, does hinge on arena availability (but with the NBA presumably still out of the equation, this could be easier than it sounds), and starts with games played on May 10th and 11th. One between the New York Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes, and one between the New York Islanders and the Columbus Blue Jackets. If the Isles lose both games, nothing changes and the standings remain the same. If the Isles win both games, they move into the first wildcard, and Carolina moves down into the second with the Blue Jackets on the outside looking in. If the Isles go 1-1, they take the second wildcard spot with whichever team they lost to getting the first. It’s not perfect, but it should appease all parties as well as anything that falls short of playing out the entire schedule.
Start the playoffs in earnest on May 12th with all four Western Conference game 1s. The Eastern Conference would start the next night, on the 13th. All series throughout the playoffs would move from the usual Home-Home-Road-Road-Home-Road-Home format we’re used to, to Home-Home-Road-Road-Road-Home-Home. It would also be on a condensed schedule, with all games played back-to-back, with the exception of travel days after games 2 and 5. This means that the first round would be played with the following schedule:
Western Conference: May 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20
Eastern Conference: May 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21
There would be a one-day break between rounds, but there would be no need to wait for an entire round to conclude before moving on to the next. For example, if both series in the Pacific Division bracket ended in sweeps on May 16, but Central Division teams are still playing on the 19th or 20th, the teams in the Pacific bracket can play game 1 of their conference semifinal series on the 18th. Even if there’s a seven-game holdup every step of the way, however, here is what the longest potential playoff schedule would look like in this model.
Western Conference 2nd Round: May 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30
Eastern Conference 2nd Round: May 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31
Western Conference Finals: June 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9
Eastern Conference Finals: June 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10
Stanley Cup Finals: June 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20
Then, just to complete the picture...
Draft Lottery: June 21
NHL Draft: June 27-28
Free Agency: July 1
At which point, we finally breathe.
It can be done. Will it? I like to remain hopeful.
The cost of failure is even higher than a grueling condensed playoff schedule.