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NHL’s 24-team playoff format is only half-baked

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Nothing is decided, and no one knows anything. Just remember that when someone says something that upsets you.

Even as Ontario begins to slowly emerge from lockdown moving into phase one of reopening people are still encouraged to maintain physical distance to slow the spread of COVID-19 Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I was watching a mystery TV show on the weekend, when the detective says, “So, apart from not having a who or a why or even a how, which gives us no when, we’re doing really well.”

The purpose of a mystery is to neatly and tidily answer all of those question. Mysteries make sense of the world by violating all the rules of the world we live in. Meanwhile, reality is full of questions that never get answered, or if they do, the answers don’t come by the end of an hour with a nice tidy result. My TV detective got all his questions answered. I don’t have that luxury.

On the weekend, the Return to Play Committee reached a sort of agreement on a playoff format should the NHL return to action for 2019-2020, and then the NHLPA held a vote of its player representatives. If you blissfully remained ignorant of all of this process during the last CBA negotiations, the basics are that each team has at least one formal player representative to the NHLPA. When the players decide on something there are three ways they can do it — they can give the executive of the NHLPA the right to decide, they can have the 31 player representatives (also called the executive board) vote, or they can have all the players vote. For this vote, the 31-player executive board voted.

You will be unsurprised to learn that Zach Hyman is the rep for the Maple Leafs with John Tavares serving as the alternate. The reps for most teams are an unsurprising list, comprised of a lot of captains, mature veterans, and generally solid citizen types like Hyman. One troubling trend is the near total domination of Canadians and Americans on the list. One team has a European rep: the Flames’ Mikael Backlund. Two teams have European alternates: the Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog and the Capitals’ Lars Eller.

The players voted yes to this 24-team playoff format. Reportedly, though not officially, by a count of 29-2. Reportedly, though not officially confirmed by the NHLPA, the dissenters were the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes.

There’s a lot of “reportedly, though not officially” surrounding all of this, and the TV detective is a good lesson for us all. No matter how much he wanted answers to his questions, just picking some out of the air to have it sorted doesn’t work. He had to wait for the writer of the show to lead him to his “who done it” by way of the how, when and where.

What do we actually know officially?

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.​

That’s basically it. They aren’t even done with this concept, and it could, in theory, all become unravelled as they negotiate over the details, one of which is reportedly a question of the seeding structure. We only know that because most of the details have been given to a few reporters, who have shared them widely. Which brings us to some things we can take as fact, just not quite officially confirmed.

Unofficially official

The NHL has given up on the idea of trying to play even a part of the regular season, and the bottom seven teams are in offseason mode now.

TSN helpfully made some graphics to show the seeding order of the proposed system, which I’m going to use again to make this simple:

Note the caveat on that graphic. The idea is that the top four teams on each side, reportedly to be in one of only two hub locations, will play each other in some sort of first round while the rest of their conference is playing elimination rounds for four more spots in the firs official playoff round. The top four teams might be able to change order in some unexplained, and so-far unofficial way.

In the weekend report on TSN from Pierre LeBrun, he mentioned that he is aware of two things the players’ executive board still wants to discuss before their yes vote is finalized. They want the first real round of the actual playoffs, where there are 16 teams left in each conference, to be reseeded, and not to use a bracket format as the NHL desires, and they want to know if that’s a best of five or best of seven series.

That leaves all the rest of the things yet to be decided as fully unknown as my TV detective’s mystery was when he lamented his lack of answers. That hasn’t stopped various people with varying levels of access to players, teams and NHL executives from confidently telling you what will happen.

Unofficially rumoured

The most solid of this layer of the information we have is that Vegas seems absolutely destined to be the Western Conference hub location. The other choice is totally unknown, and while a few cities have gotten some buzz for making pitches, none more vigorous and public than Edmonton, there is no clarity on where the other hub will be located and if someone confidently tells you which country it’s going to be in, they’re hoping you’ll forget they said it if they turn out to have guessed wrong.

Vegas might unravel. Not literally, that would be a horror of sequins and feathers littered around, but there is so little knowable about even the near future that an outbreak of COVID-19 in the wrong place could cause even sure things to not come true.

Totally unknown

In some senses, even the knowns are unknowns right now. There is no when, no how, and the who is vague too.

The closest you can get to a answer to when is to count back 45 to 50 days from December 1, and you have the date the NHL would like to have handed out the cup by. That’s the timeframe that’s been reported for the latest the NHL wants to start next season and the length of offseason the NHLPA will insist on. And like everything else, that’s subject to change, renegotiation, compromise and it might have even been a lie in the first place.

At the other end of the timescale for when things will start is that it hasn’t yet, and it cannot start until the NHL is able to issue the recall order to the players to return to their home rinks for training — the length of which is... well, it starts with un- and ends with -known. Not Tuesday, although LeBrun said we should expect some more details on Tuesday, which if you’ve lost track is May 26.

June 1, the date some rights expire for drafted players is next Monday. Once that deadline is past, a lot more roll up in June very quickly.

The who is up in the air as well, with a current ruling that players on reserve lists (drafted prospects) who have been signed to an ELC may not have that ELC begin in 2019-2020 and may not play in the resumed season. That is contrary to the normal way this works where players have shown up to finish the regular season and the playoffs after they’ve left Europe or college. That ruling may change. We don’t know how many players will be on the expanded team rosters either.

The how is the biggest and thorniest question of all, and there is not going to be any details on that until the Return to Play Committee hash out everything from the thread count of the sheets in the hotels to the testing protocols. Then the NHL teams and players vote. If this sounds like CBA negotiations, that’s because it is. In effect, they’re writing a mini-CBA to cover this unprecedented event.

It is very likely that the Leafs will play the Blue Jackets in some form of play-in round of unknown length. Maybe. If this turns out to be something that can move beyond the planning stage. Which is another of those unknowns.

We don’t know the playing rosters for each team, and it’s premature to breakdown the matchup. We don’t know if the winner will face Boston or not, but don’t let me stop you worrying on that score.

That’s the story for now, maybe tomorrow will answer some of these question. But in the meantime, I suggest a good Agatha Christie if you want more answers.