The Puck Starts Here: NHL Announces “Return To Play Plan”

Nathan Tucker
nrtucker@lc.edu

Via a Zoom call on Tuesday, May 26, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s plan to return to the ice. The most important feature of note: the season is over for the league’s seven worst teams. 

The NHL will resume with 24 of its 31 teams playing in a playoff format. Now that I’ve told you that much, here’s where it starts to get tricky.

Each conference will hold a 12-team playoff, since that adds four teams to its existing structure, the opening round is drastically different from what hockey fans are accustomed to. The opening round structure is as follows:

 

  • The top four teams in each conference will play each other in a three-game round robin format to determine the top four seeds in the second round. 
  • The remaining eight teams in each conference will play each other in a best-of-five series.
  • The second round will then look something like the typical first round, top four seeds playing winners from bottom eight, regular format for rest of playoffs.
  • Potentially five-game series for second round and conference semifinals, guaranteed seven-game series for the conference and Stanley Cup finals.

 

How do the Blues factor into all this? Atop of the Western Conference, they get the easiest route possible and only have to play in the round robin to determine their opponent for the second round.

Conversely, compared to their expected playoff route of (likely) playing the eighth seed, the Blues are adding three games against top Western Conference opposition in Colorado, Vegas and Edmonton.

Beyond the playoffs, just to get back on the ice, teams will be allowed to hold non-formal, small-group camps in June, with full-fledged training camps beginning in July. Although no official dates were set for the beginning of the 24-team playoffs, this timetable projects competitive games to return by August.

With an August start date, Bettman believes that the league can finish its playoffs and declare a Stanley Cup Champion before the (currently projected) start of the 2020-2021 season. Essentially, this season’s playoffs would end, and teams would be given a month or so, and then the ‘20-’21 season would begin. 

The NHL is the first league of the major sports leagues in the US to formally announce a “return to play” plan. Part of that is a desperation to draw big TV ratings without the competition of other live sports. 

The league is trying to prove its worth to TV broadcasters, notably, NBC sports, who they are currently in negotiations with for a new rights contract. The NHL’s current deal with NBC ends after the 2021-2022 season, valued at two billion dollars over its ten-year length. 

By getting on TV and drawing millions of viewers before the other sports in America can get off the ground, the NHL will see likely their best ratings outside of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, where our beloved Blues captured the hearts and minds of hockey fans on their way to their first Stanley Cup win.

Will the Stanley Cup Playoffs feel as intense without the atmosphere that has made the league’s playoffs notorious within the sports world? Likely not. Gone are hockey barns full of passionate, screaming fans. In their place will be sterile, empty, echo-heavy arenas with crowd noise potentially piped in.

The playoffs have always been a showcase of NHL’s most passionate fanbases, and that all disappears now. Does the league care? Perhaps, but not enough to scrap the season during a TV contract negotiation. 

Drop the puck, I guess.

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