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How the 2020 NHL playoffs can be the greatest ever

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While much uncertainty remains as to whether play can actually resume, there are five specific ways the league can maximize the fun should a playoff tournament happen.
The conversation I’ve been having inside my head this week:
Hockey Brain: «Hooray, hockey’s comin’ back!»
Cynical Brain: «This 24-team tournament and elaborate draft lottery are merely the framework for a possible return to finish the 2019-20 NHL season. It’s candy for the sugar-starved. It’s a shiny object for those seeking willful distraction from the issues still facing a return to play: the location of the hub cities, and the health and safety of players and their families stuck inside of them; capacity for testing; the protocols for players and staff who test positive for the coronavirus; governmental regulations; and all of the other complicated issues facing a league seeking to continue on during a global pandemic. Tuesday’s announcement was designed, for weeks, as a way to give fans a sense of progress and give the hockey community something to talk about as a respite in dire times. That’s not even touching on the inequities of the format they’ve settled on, that somehow manages to both punish current playoff teams (giving them no benefit in a qualification round) and unprecedentedly reward them (giving them a shot at Alexis Lafrenière after losing a five-game series). The NHL won the messaging game because no one bothered to read the fine print.»
Hockey Brain: «Hooray, hockey’s comin’ back!»
Look, there’s a mountain to climb for the NHL, and at the top of that mountain is an infectious disease that has killed more than 100,000 people in the U. S. alone. Let’s not be under any delusions about how stacked the deck is against hockey coming back, and how many very dedicated fans would rather it not come back at this time.
But to acknowledge my Hockey Brain for a moment: If all of the NHL’s best-laid plans work out… if conditions in late July allow for it to happen … if the postseason isn’t scuttled by a second wave of COVID-19 or a slew of positive tests among the players … it’s going to be awesome.
I’m giving myself, and by proxy all of you, permission to feel excited about this for a moment. To ignore the stinking pile of laundry in the corner of the bedroom to admire how tidy the floor is. What are sports if not diversion? What are sports if not distraction? What are sports if not a reason to wallow in the imaginary for while?
Here are five reasons I’m legitimately excited for the 2019-20 restart (should it, you know, actually happen).
Just over 77% of the NHL’s teams are about to enter the postseason. That’s a higher percentage than during the 12-year run of 16 out of 21 teams making the cut, before the San Jose Sharks began a second wave of NHL expansion in 1991.
That’s quite a crowded party.
Now, imagine what kind of partygoer you would be if you have upward of four months to rest up before the all-night rager. Because outside of a few long-term injury cases, these are going to be 24 refreshed and healthy teams. (And rusty, but one hopes the three-week training camp and a couple of exhibition games helps that.) A fully loaded Colorado Avalanche team. The Carolina Hurricanes with Dougie Hamilton back. Look at the New York Islanders: They’ll have Adam Pelech available for their blue line in the playoffs, having gone 25-10-3 with him and 10-13-7 without him in the regular season.
The term «best on best» gets thrown around a lot in hockey, usually in reference to the Olympics or what Canadians believed the World Cup of Hockey was supposed to be. But we’ve never had, in over 100 years of the National Hockey League, a postseason tournament with this many teams that are this rested and ready. The journey to win Stanley Cup has never been this difficult. It’s the tournament of tournaments.
(Which is the reason the winner should have an asterisk next to its name to connote that journey. But thanks to lockout seasons and Barry Bonds, asterisks have come to signify dubious achievement rather than extraordinary circumstances.)
I like this playoff format. I don’t love it. The sweet spot would have been 22 teams. And it bugs me that the higher-seeded teams don’t have any discernible advantages. That’s why I sympathize with the Hurricanes, who voted against the format. As coach Rod Brind’Amour told us on the ESPN On Ice podcast this week: «What was the 68 games we played for? What did we grind for? The bulk of the season was completed, and they just threw that out.»
The Hurricanes were fond of a round-robin tournament that would have weighted their regular-season achievement more highly. If that was going to be too complicated to pull off, how about this: Start each series with the higher seed owning a 1-0 lead.
Instead, we get an almost even playing field for the haves and have-nots. In a five-game sprint. There will be upsets. More than a few.
But the play-in round has its virtues. The Hurricanes-Rangers series could be tremendous, given the Rangers were 4-0-0 against the Canes this season. The Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets are going to be contentious — give Columbus coach John Tortorella an underdog story to tell, and he’ll spin it like no other. The Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers are going to be ridiculous, fire-wagon hockey. The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets could be a brutal Smythe Division throwback. The way the Minnesota Wild were playing before the regular season ended, taking on a healthy yet green Vancouver Canucks team might be the best matchup of the entire qualifying round.
The top-four-seed round-robin tournament is, frankly, hilarious. The NHL had its most successful teams whining about a bye, saying they wanted significant games before the round of 16 because they watched a lackadaisical Lightning team get eaten alive by Columbus last spring. So the NHL is like, «You want significant games? How about the Flyers and Stars can both earn the top seeds in their conferences if they go 3-0 in round-robin play. That significant enough for you?»
There’s something beautifully petty about the NHL threatening a 12-point jump in the standings as a way to appease these franchises.
Flaws and all, it’s a fun playoff format that hopefully serves as a Trojan horse for playoff expansion in subsequent seasons. More teams, more fun. More teams, more money. For them and for us.
The first days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are two of the best days in any gambler’s year. Calling it «March Madness» is such an understatement: multitudes of games, starting around lunchtime, continuing deep into the evening. Ladies and gentlemen, start your wagers.
I’ve long advocated for the first day of the Stanley Cup playoffs to follow that model as a celebration of the postseason. It sounds like I’m going to get an entire opening round of that postseason played all day long, during a live sports vacuum on television.

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