We believe the NHL regular season is over, and we’re on to the playoffs.
We believe the Bruins will start as favorites, be one of 24 teams competing, and they will become uncomfortably familiar with COVID-19 nasal swabs.
We also believe this: In the coming months, the puck will drop, and the Stanley Cup will be lifted. Only twice in the last 100-plus years has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919 because of a flu pandemic and 2005 because of a lockout.
Revealing an unprecedented plan for exceptional times, the NHL on Tuesday became the first of the “big four” pro sports leagues in the United States to publicly outline how it intends to safely allow its athletes to compete amid the pandemic.
It will stop the regular season, which was paused March 12, and conduct small-group workouts and training camps. Then comes an expanded playoffs hosted by a pair of to-be-determined cities. With stringent testing and social distancing of players — and no fans in attendance — the league hopes to finish the postseason before the fall, and after a break, start 2020-21 before January.
With the 2019-20 regular season over, the Bruins are the Presidents’ Trophy winner, and a few players locked up individual awards.
David Pastrnak became co-winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals), tying Washington’s Alex Ovechkin with 48 goals. It is the first major award for Pastrnak, 24. He also tied for third in league scoring (95 points), 15 points behind Art Ross Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton. The goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak won the Jennings Trophy (fewest goals against). Rask, who also led the league in goals against average (2.12) and was second in save percentage (.929), could win his first Vezina Trophy since 2014.
Now comes the postseason, at a date to be determined.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, and NHL Players Association director Donald Fehr, speaking from their homes via video call, stressed that the return to play will happen only under the guidance of civil and medical authorities. Contingencies and hope are parts of the fabric.
“This will be a living document,” Fehr said of the plan.
Bettman said it’s conceivable that the NHL returns to competition by the end of July, but added that “anybody who gives you a date is guessing.” He even conceded the possibility that if conditions improve drastically, fans could be allowed to see Stanley Cup Final games, though that does not seem likely today.
“We have a long road in front of us,” Daly said. “Hopefully today is a sign of good things to come.”
The league’s plan was comprehensive.
Starting at the top: the Bruins, first in the NHL (44-14-12, 100 points), will prepare for the playoffs by facing three teams directly behind them in the Eastern Conference (Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia). One game between each, in a round-robin tournament to determine playoff seeding. In the West, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas will do the same. The games will be played with regular-season overtime (3 on 3, and a shootout) rules. Ties will be broken by regular-season points percentage.
Since teams had played an uneven number of games when the league halted, the NHL used points percentage, rather than point totals, to determine positioning.
The other 16 teams, again divided by conference, will play best-of-five series for the remaining eight playoff spots. In the East, the matchups are Pittsburgh-Montreal, Carolina-NY Rangers, NY Islanders-Florida, and Toronto-Columbus. In the West, it’s Edmonton-Chicago, Nashville-Arizona, Vancouver-Minnesota, and Calgary-Winnipeg. Those games will be played with playoff overtime (sudden death) rules.
The Stanley Cup Final and conference finals will be best of seven. The league and the players’ union PA were discussing whether Rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs will be best of five or seven.
The round-robin-for-seeding format means Boston and St. Louis, combatants in a Stanley Cup Final that began one year ago Wednesday, could be No. 4 seeds to start the playoffs if they go 0-3 in the round-robin.
Bruins president Cam Neely could not be reached for comment on the day’s news.
As it is always so, the NHL playoffs are a capricious few months, where a bounce or bad call can put even the most formidable team on the golf course for the offseason. Just ask Tampa Bay, which earned 128 points last year and was swept out of the playoffs in Round 1.
And any plan “cannot be perfect,” Bettman said, nearly one year after elated fans streamed out of TD Garden after the Bruins beat the Blues in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “I am certain that depending on what team you root for, you can find one element of this package you might prefer to be done differently.
“This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion.”
It is unclear how the teams would be seeded for the 16-team playoffs. The NHL prefers a bracket system, Bettman said, though he alluded to the players wanting a re-seed.
Testing is part and parcel to the plan. Bettman maintained that the NHL would not affect the stores of local governments and medical communities. By time of competition, Daly said, the league will test players every night and obtain results by the time they report to the rink the next morning. That means 25,000 to 30,000 tests, with the team and league picking up a tab Bettman estimated at millions of dollars.
Bettman said the league will spend “tens of millions of dollars” to resume the season without the benefit of ticket-buying fans. Its TV partners (NBC Sports, and Rogers in Canada) will provide a feed for fans to watch.
Boston is not one of the cities under consideration to be a “hub.” Those in the running include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver. Bettman said a decision on hub cities would be made in a few weeks, to make the safest decisions possible, and that the league was not married to having an East/West or US/Canada setup.
He and Daly also put public pressure on the Canadian government, saying the league would not consider playing north of the border unless Canada relaxed its 14-day quarantine for border crossings.
The season is over for Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Buffalo, and New Jersey, who may go some 10 months without hockey, if the next season doesn’t begin until January. Those seven teams will enter a 15-team, two-part lottery.
While explaining the draft lottery, Bettman paused to apologize that it was “a bit complicated — as if what I’ve already told you hasn’t been.”
Phase 1 of the lottery comes prior to the resumption of play. On June 26, the seven teams and eight placeholder spots — for the eight losing teams of the play-in — will draw for the top three picks. If the top three spots are won by the seven non-playoff teams, there will be no Phase 2.
If a placeholder spot wins any of the top three spots, there will be a second lottery with the eight play-in losers to determine the pick(s). That will happen after the play-in round. The remaining top 15 picks will be determined by points percentage.
Detroit (17-49-5) has the worst record, but Ottawa, which also owns San Jose’s pick, will have a 25 percent chance at landing the top choice. If play-in teams win the top three picks, the seven non-playoff teams can pick no worse than spots 4-10. The No. 1 pick is presumed to be winger Alexis Lafreniere of the Quebec Major Junior League.
The return is on the horizon. Or so it would seem to be.
“I think it’s been an important day for sports and the NHL,” Bettman said. “We hope this is a step back toward normalcy.”