The morning after the NHL announced its complex return-to-play plan, Bruins president Cam Neely said he was both cheered by the prospect of being back in the playoffs, yet disappointed that the Black and Gold could lose the No. 1 seeding they held when the league went dark March 12.
“It’s a little frustrating, based on what the team accomplished in the first 70 games, that in three round-robin games we could go from first overall in the league to fourth in the conference once the playoffs start,” Neely noted in an e-mail exchange with the Globe Wednesday.
“Mind you, we are excited to have the possibility to play playoff hockey this year."
The Bruins, a league-leading 44-14-12 (100 points) when things closed down, stood to hold the No. 1 seed throughout the full four-round playoff season.
Under the postseason format announced Tuesday afternoon, the top four seeds in each conference will play in a three-game round-robin tournament to determine seeds 1-4.
Eight of the preliminary seeds, 9-24, will be eliminated in a best-of-five play-in round to determine which eight teams will go up against the top four “bye” teams in the East and the West, all of whom will have played in the non-elimination round-robin tournament.
In the West, the Blues, who defeated the Bruins in Game 7 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, held the No. 1 seed when play was suspended 77 days ago because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We considered lots of options,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, when asked Tuesday how he would address concerns of Boston and St. Louis over the potential loss of their top seedings. “By getting a bye, they are going to face a team that just came out of a competitive series.
“The concern was, they needed to have some competition that might not put them at risk in terms of the playoffs, but would give them an opportunity to play some real games.”
In the East, the Bruins will square off against Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia to determine their seeding at the top of the conference.
In the West, the Blues will go up against Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas.
“That’s the answer,” added Bettman. “[The players] wanted some games that mattered to some extent in order not to come in against a team that just played a competitive series — the benefit and curse of a bye, I suppose.”
Neely, who spoke later Wednesday on a Zoom call with local reporters, said he was fine with the 24-team format, round-robin aside. He would like a reseeding of teams after the play-in, rather than the bracket setup Bettman said the league prefers, because “it speaks a little more to how successful your regular season was.”
Players have pushed for a reseed, Bettman said. A vote is expected in the coming days.
The next phase of the restart involves small groups skating and working out while social distancing at team facilities. The skates are voluntary (and are not to be watched by team executives). Given the many Bruins who reside in the Boston area, Neely expected a busy schedule.
He estimated Warrior Ice Arena, the team’s currently iceless practice headquarters, could host three rotating groups of six players at first, those from out-of-state joining once they return and self-quarantine for 14 days, per the March 27 order from Governor Charlie Baker.
“We’re connecting with the players and seeing what their plans are,” Neely said. “I think most of the players are more interested in getting on ice right now. A lot of them have been off the ice the longest in their careers, probably the longest since they’ve been playing serious hockey. Once we get the ice down, I think you’ll see more and more players trickling in.
“From what I understand talking to some of the guys, they’re anxious and excited. They have some questions and concerns about how this is all going to play out, but everybody still wants to play hockey.”
He's not juiced about the format, but Neely believes the playoff-tested Bruins are set up well to win.
“It’ll be interesting to see once we get back up and running,” he said. “We’ve got a group of guys that are very dedicated and committed, and know where the team was at the pause. Nothing’s a guarantee as we know, but we have a legitimate chance to do well and have a deep run.”
Whoever wins the rejiggered tourney, Neely will tip his cap.
“We’ve had shortened seasons whether it’s lockouts or strikes and had Stanley Cup champions, and I don’t recall seeing asterisks beside those years,” he said. “I don’t see why this is any different. The playoff format has changed in the history of the NHL, the number of games per round has changed. You’re going to have to play four rounds and beat those teams.”