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NHL Unveils Plan To Return, With A Few Questions Left Out There Like When, Where And How?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has plenty of questions to answer with league’s plan to re-open, like when and where, to name just two.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has plenty of questions to answer with league’s plan to re-open, like when and where, to name just two.
Photo: Getty

What’s most obvious about the NHL’s “outline” of how it will finish its 2019-2020 playoffs is that it had a huge desire to be the first league to put actual matchups and actual processes in fans’ minds. It’s like giving an animal a name. Makes it harder to kill or something.

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It’s one thing to leak out what you think playoffs might look like, so fans have something to chew over. That’s all fantasy. Now that the NHL has given them “Chicago vs. Edmonton,” or “Carolina vs. The Rangers,” or “Pittsburgh Has A Chance At The Cup And The No. 1 Pick” — which already has our Philly-leaning Chris Baud spitting satanic verses — it becomes real. It’s something you can touch, in a way. And, I suppose, the hope is that it will build pressure for the league to carry it to a point where this actually happens.

Because that’s all the NHL did this afternoon, without providing anything resembling the real answers needed, or even how it might go about addressing them.

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We’ll get to that in a second, but first, the fluff:

The NHL’s 24-team playoff system is what they will go to, if the world’s situation allows. The league must still work through a Phase 2 — small group training at team facilities — and Phase 3, which would be a training camp, before it even gets to that.

But the end of the map is clear. Each conference’s 12 top teams will be sequestered in one of two hub cities, but they don’t know which cities those are yet. The top four seeds, based on points-percentage in the regular season, will play each other once in a round-robin format to determine the top four playoff seeds.

Those teams are:

Illustration for article titled NHL Unveils Plan To Return, With A Few Questions Left Out There Like When, Where And How?
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Concurrently, the bottom eight teams will partake in a “play-in” style series, with the 5th seed playing the 12th seed, the 6th seed playing the 11th, and so on in best-of-five series.

Those matchups are set, and they are:

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh vs. Montreal

Carolina vs. New York Rangers

New York Islanders vs. Florida

Toronto vs. Columbus

Western Conference

Chicago vs. Edmonton

Nashville vs. Arizona

Vancouver vs Minnesota

Calgary vs. Winnipeg

Don’t ask what the hub cities are, or whether the teams will be re-seeded after the play-in round, or whether it will be an NCAA-style bracket, or whether the first two rounds of the playoffs will be best-of-five or best-of-seven, because the NHL doesn’t know.

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg on what the NHL can’t tell you, and just the first few questions the league can’t answer. Like when this season will even restart. Here’s commissioner Gary Bettman on that: “I think it’s conceivable we’re playing at the end of July ... if it has to slide more, it has to slide more. Anybody who gives you a date (on the restart of the season) is guessing.”

Anyway, the two hub cities will be chosen from a list comprising Pittsburgh, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Minneapolis, Dallas, Columbus, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

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According to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, players have been designated “essential workers” by the Department of Homeland Security. As it currently stands, though, travellers entering Canada need to self-quarantine for 14 days. So unless the NHL can skirt this mandate — and they say they’re working with the Canadian government on this — don’t count on Toronto, Edmonton or Vancouver as hub cities.

It will be another three to four weeks before the league announces which two cities it has picked for its experiment. It expects to have, by then, a better sense of the testing and infection outlook in each of its candidate locations. Or, more likely, whichever town is willing to put up with this farce.

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For fans of the seven teams who have been told to “do one” and are now done for the season, don’t worry — there’s stuff for you, too! A possible two-phase draft lottery. This is tricky, so stick with me here: The seven non-playoff teams and the eight “play-in” losers will be part of that. Except it will be held before the playoffs start, so those eight “play-in” slots will be simply placeholders at the first lottery. Think of it like ghost-runners when you were a kid and playing baseball, except they have a chance to turn real later (if you’re thinking this is getting more like “Calvinball” than you were prepared for, you’re not alone). The top three spots in the draft will be open for the lottery. If all of them are won by the seven non-playoff teams, that’s it. But if one of the slots is won by a “place-holder,” then the eight play-in losers will participate in a blind, equal chance lottery to see who gets that spot(s) when we know who those teams are.

Go lie down for a bit.

If you’re wondering when this might take place, the NHL won’t start training camp until July 1, and even if that date is changed, Donald Fehr was quoted as saying the league would probably push for about three weeks of camp. Actual competition probably couldn’t start before late July, at the soonest. So this plan would likely run through September, turning the start date of the 2020-2021 season into another unanswerable question. Bettman has said it could be as late as January ‘21, which means ‘21-’22 is probably subject to change as well.

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“Everything starts with health and safety,” said Bettman. But he can’t tell you anything about health or safety right now, with far more pressing questions, as summed up beautifully here by the excellent RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com.

So this whole plan seems just south of landing on Venus.

Perhaps the funniest aspect of the NHL’s proposed health protocols — if only it weren’t so stupid — is the idea of NHL players testing themselves at home, daily, and reporting the results via an “app” that has yet to be created.

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This is a league full of guys who routinely fake their baseline tests at the beginning of seasons so they look less concussed when they actually take a hit to the head. The same guys who stay in playoff games when their organs are falling into their legs. Does anyone really think any player, to a man, would honestly report symptoms if it meant sidelining them for these playoffs, such as they are? Horeseshit.

Nor does it seem the NHL has any handle on this, per Daly.

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So how many tests would it take to shut down the playoffs? Who are the league’s medical experts? Again, answers are scarce.

This problem could be off-set by comprehensive testing — the kind that doesn’t exist anywhere in the country right now. As RMNB points out, the NHL doesn’t lay out what levels communities would have to achieve in testing numbers for the NHL then to carry out the number of tests it would need to start any phase of this (some 1200 per week per hub city based on their projections). And by Phase 4, the competitive phase, players would be tested every night. It doesn’t even define what each team’s “infectious disease consultant” would be. This is a league that can’t even get its concussion protocols right and routinely followed, and we’re going to trust it amongst a global pandemic?

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I like a thrill ride as much as the next guy, but this looks like trying to remove an apple from your child’s head with a Ford Escape while on quaaludes.

Also not laid out is what players will do about injuries even sustained in training camp when most places are trying to keep non-vital medical procedures to a minimum, if allowing them at all. But hey, why have a few unanswered questions when you can have a truck full?

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All the NHL has done today is provide a splash of color to a very blank American sports canvas, which is something. But it’s not nearly enough, and they still haven’t shown how they’re going to color within all the lines.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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