Ramblings: New phase for NHL return; playoff format; future Wild Card games – May 26
We're starting to get some details about the NHL roll-out for playoffs. We saw the 24-team format (in some manner) get approved last week while the actual protocols for returning to practice are starting to leak out. Readers can just flip through this tweet thread from Sportsnet's Chris Johnston for more details. Limited contact, a handful of players at a time, twice-weekly testing, that sort of thing.
It seems pretty obvious we're still, at best, several weeks away from hockey returning, and a lot can happen in the meantime. Let's just hope things work out.
Renaud Lavoie of RDS in Canada reported the following:
Hearing June 26 is the date that we should have the NHL Lottery Draft. No dates on the NHL Draft yet.
— Renaud Lavoie (@renlavoietva) May 25, 2020
For argument's sake, let's say the 26th of June is the date for the draft lottery. What does that tell us?
For one, it tells us that all the non-playoff teams that are normally entered into the lottery will not be entered this year. The trade-off for having 24 teams in the "playoffs" is that the extra teams don't get a chance to move up. (That is assuming they don't finish the play-in games within a month of today, which is, I think, a safe assumption.) The bottom-7 teams are in the lottery – well, six because of the San Jose/Ottawa swap – and those teams will decide the bottom of the draft order. The rest of the draft will be filled out by then.
For second, if this is the trade-off, we can see just how much the playoff revenue is valued, and how much teams just want a shot at a Cup. No, I don't think Minnesota or Florida are actual Cup contenders, but they might think they are, and that's all that matters. These teams voted yes, meaning they'd rather have a one percent chance at a Cup than have a shot at moving from like 11th overall to seventh. I think it's the right answer, but I also think it's a fun debate worth having. Would you rather have, say, a 1-in-200 chance at a Cup, or the shot at moving up a handful of spots for a draft pick? I think it's an easy choice, but I wonder about the actual expected value here i.e. is it worth more for, say, Florida to have a minimal chance at a Cup, or have a chance at a game-breaker on a cheap contract in the first 10 picks?
With that 24-team playoff looming, one thing I wanted to mention was the Carolina Hurricanes voting "no" on the format (Tampa Bay also voted against it). The reason for that is pretty clear: they'd have to play the Rangers. I get that teams playing those that are out of the playoffs, like the Rangers, all have some inherent danger to them. The difference is the Rangers were one of the best teams in the NHL post-Christmas. I know it feels like the burning of the Library of Alexandria by now, but the Rangers started the season as a bad team because guys like Lias Andersson, Micheal Haley, and, yes, Kaapo Kakko were weighing them down. Playing Marc Staal and Libor Hajek more than Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox at 5-on-5 also contributed to this.
After Christmas, though, both Fox and DeAngelo were being given top-4 minutes while guys like Haley and Andersson were sent to the minors. The difference was stark: from October 1 – December 25, the team had a .528 points percentage and a 44 percent expected goal share (which is beyond abysmal). From December 25 onward, they had a .603 points percentage (higher than Vancouver, Toronto, and, yes, Carolina), while pushing all the way up to a 50.5 percent expected goal share (higher than Carolina, Pittsburgh, Edmonton, and Nashville). The Rangers have a very talented top-6, an underrated top-4 defence corps, and either Shesterkin or Lundqvist in net, neither being a guy teams would want to face in a 5-game series.
There are other teams that shouldn't like this. Does Edmonton really want to put the season in Mike Smith's hands against a Blackhawks team that was second in scoring in the league after Christmas? Does Pittsburgh really want to play a short series against Carey Price, however much Price may have fallen off these last few years? Do the Leafs want to get a finally-healthy Columbus team that has had among the best goaltending tandems in the league, playing behind very good (and oft-injured) team defence? Also, what about the teams that get a bye? They don't get games to knock the rust off. If they do, it'll be for seeding, which means the top teams have to put themselves at risk of injury to key players without ever stepping foot on the ice for an actual playoff game.
As I wrote last week, there are no good options, just varying degrees of bad. This does seem like an unnecessarily bad option for a number of teams, though, and that's not even discussing the additional risk of transmission.
There are still more announcements to come as it relates to the playoff format, but I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that if they don't re-seed, and the Leafs win their play-in series, they'll get the Bruins. Even in a season that could have been cancelled, and where there'll be eight additional "playoff" teams, there's a decent chance the Leafs still get the Bruins in the first round.
All I could think of was this:
There are other series that I would be looking forward to as a neutral fan.
Edmonton and Chicago sticks out. As mentioned earlier, the Blackhawks were scoring the lights out as the season went to break. Now, they're still a bad defensive team, and the Oilers had finally figured out their second line with the emergence of Kailer Yamamoto. With the Oilers running two lines that can pretty much score at will, and with the Blackhawks being one of the top offensive teams of late, we could see a lot of fireworks.
At the risk of sounding like a big, dumb idiot, I love matchups of Canadian teams in the playoffs. Is it because Canadians teams have been largely disappointing for a quarter century? Could be! Either way, sign me all the way the heck up for a Calgary/Winnipeg series. I don't think Winnipeg is a very good team – they're basically Chicago with better goaltending – but they do have elite top-end talent; if Patrik Laine gets hot, he can win three games on his own. The flipside is the somewhat disappointing (at least fantasy-wise) Flames. Could we get a score-fest of guys like Gaudreau and Monahan find their sea legs again? Hope so.
Pittsburgh and Montreal is another series I want to see, even if the Habs don't belong (and I say that as a Habs fan). The memories of the 2010 playoff series between these two teams are seared in my memory and though the rosters are almost entirely different from 10 years ago, I want nothing more than to see Carey Price do what Jaroslav Halak did 10 years prior: literally save a mediocre team from playoff elimination. They'll be fast games, if nothing else.
Nashville and Arizona could prove pivotal. I think these are two teams who are better than they showed in the regular season, even if there's not a lot of reason for that belief. I just think there's a lot of talent all over both rosters, and the duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta is a formidable one. I still believe that Nashville is a Cup contender. Let's see what they can do.
Are there any play-in series that appeal to you? Head to the Facebook comments.
There's part of me that thinks this is also a testing ground for the NHL and a new playoff format. Major League Baseball expanded their playoff format to include a play-in game for the Wild Card, adding a 163rd game to the schedule, essentially. These games are wildly popular and have produced three World Series champions in the last decade. Yes, it makes things a bit worse for teams at the top, but they generate revenue and give more fans a chance at watching "playoff" games. If fans go nuts for this, I wouldn't be surprised to see the NHL include some sort of play-in format down the road. Something to chew on for the next CBA.
Final thing on the playoffs: 24 teams included and none from California. Remember just a few years ago when making the California trip was a death sentence for teams? Now, none of them can make the playoffs when over three-quarters of the league gets in. When the decline hits, it can hit fast. I'm sure there are lots of Ottawa Senators fans out there that are non-plussed about all this, however.
No data at this moment.