Sad to say, but the NHL’s regular season should be declared finished because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The question is, can the Stanley Cup playoffs be salvaged?
No one knows. It depends on how quickly things return to normal. One idea being floated has the regular season resuming in early July and finishing later that month. The Stanley Cup playoffs would then begin and would end in late September. That would force the 2020-21 season to start in November, about a month later than usual.
Bad ideas all around. Why alter two seasons?
In a conference call Monday with the NHL Board of Governors and commissioner Gary Bettman, discussions centered around the myriad schedule possibilities if the season can be resumed. An infectious-disease consultant was also on the call.
In the end, there were no concrete answers. Until the coronavirus outbreak is under control, it’s impossible to know when the season will resume — or if it will.
What we do know is this: On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that events with 50 or more people should be canceled or postponed for eight weeks, which takes us to May 10. The NHL, on its website, said that if “events are tracking positively, we would hope to be able to begin providing high-level guidance on the potential of opening a club training camp period roughly 45 days into the period covered by the CDC’s recommendation.”
In that scenario, which may be overly optimistic, the brief training camps would begin around May 1, and the season would resume around May 10.
Again, this is a best-case scenario, and it isn’t known yet if fans would be permitted in arenas to watch the games.
Let’s go with that best-case scenario for now. If the NHL could return on May 10, it could bag the regular season, seed the top four teams (down from the usual eight) in each conference and have a best-of-seven quarterfinals, semifinals, and Stanley Cup Final, which would end in late June, just a little later than usual.
Yes, this would cause pain to the fans and the teams that were in playoff spots but not in the top four in each conference. It would also cause anguish to the teams that were within striking distance of playoff spots when the season was suspended March 12.
The league is in a tough spot because it would like to play the entire 82-game regular season — teams have played between 68 and 71 games so far — but it also knows that could drag the playoffs late into the summer.
That said, these are special circumstances and, from here, it’s more important that the season ends at a semi-normal time than dragging it to the end of September.
If the league went to a three-round setup, it would be copying the format used when the Flyers won their Stanley Cups in the 1970s, though the Finals ended in late May in those years. Back then, three playoff rounds produced a Cup champion instead of four rounds.
If teams were seeded by points percentage this season, the quarterfinals of a three-round playoff system would look like this:
Two series wins would give teams the conference titles and put them into the Stanley Cup Final.
If the May 10 starting date is too optimistic and the season couldn’t start until, say, two weeks later, the first two playoff rounds could be reduced to best-of-five series, with the Cup Final using a best-of-seven format.
From here, ending the season in late June and keeping the NHL draft (June 26-27) and free agency (July 1) around the same time frame would add some normalcy to a chaotic situation. And, as noted earlier, it would enable the league to start the next season in October without any disruptions.