With cancellations and postponements due to the threat of COVID-19 occupying the sports world this week, the NHL’s indefinite hiatus came as no surprise when it was announced on Thursday.
For some sports, it’s relatively easy to find a solution to navigating a virus: you just cancel, and simply don’t play them until it’s viable. It’s an unfortunate outcome, but it’s a pretty easy measure to help combat the spread of a global pandemic.
Today, Gary Bettman did a number of media tours echoing the same sentiment: no one’s really sure what the plan is yet, 70 games deep into the 82-game regular season.
Gary Bettman tells @Sportsnet's Hockey Central that the NHL is doing "all sorts of modelling" about what the rest of the season might look like depending on when they're able to resume. Mentions a range of possibilities under consideration.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 13, 2020
While it’s hard to really predict when this version of coronavirus will no longer be a threat, here are a few ways the NHL could handle the situation (once it’s viable, of course) in order to get hockey up and running again and award a Stanley Cup champion for 2019-20.
1. Wait as long as it takes
There’s really little disincentive for the NHL to just un-hit pause. Sure, summer hockey might be weird to get used to if it comes to that, but outside of rescheduling games for each team, it’s entirely possible the NHL just plays the remainder of its season and playoffs out as normal at a later date.
There’s about three months left to be played. It could involve next season being shortened as well, but outside of a few logistical and contractual hurdles, actually might be the easiest solution to resume, whenever possible.
2. Play in empty arenas
As they’ve already put the league on pause, it seems quite unlikely that the NHL would be at a state where they would decide to return to play (even in a few weeks) if fans weren’t also attending.
It would also be counterintuitive, as they’d lose out on gate revenue and also upset their customers. It is still a possibility on the table for risk minimization, but probably both the least-likely and least-favoured options.
3. Combine the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup
Whether or not they finish the remainder of the regular season, the NHL could take a page out of many worldwide soccer leagues’ book and just give the league’s biggest trophy to the team with the most points in the regular season.
As of right now, could you imagine the scenes if the league hands the Boston Bruins the Stanley Cup without even having to play the playoffs? Seems quite unlikely, but again, these are unusual times.
4. Pick the playoff teams as of right now
We’re enough of the way through the NHL season that the teams in the playoff positions are mostly the teams that will make the playoffs anyway.
Sort the standings by points percentage, send everyone else home, and start the playoffs as-is when you can. For the teams that missed out by a point or two, it’s rough, but it’s hardly different than missing out by a point over 82 games.
It’s still four best-of-seven series to win the Stanley Cup, just without the final 12 game of the regular season or so.
5. Shortened series (16 teams)
Playing out the remainder of the regular season, but reducing the length of playoff series could be another viable strategy in order to turn 16 playoff teams into one champion. With just over three weeks left to play in the regular season, it’s still a large enough amount for the remaining games to be make-or-break for many teams on the bubble.
Having best-of-3 or best-of-5 rounds (and a likely best-of-7) for the Stanley Cup could cut a couple of weeks from the schedule, but still have the playoffs feel authentic.
6. Shortened series (Expand the playoffs)
According to MoneyPuck.com, there are nine teams with 5% or less chance of making the playoffs at this point. The league could send all of those teams packing, and expand the playoff field to include everyone else, with a series of byes to give an advantage to the higher-ranked teams.
Assuming there’s 22 teams left, the playoffs could look something like this:
|1 (one-game playoff)||22||Top 3 seeds in each division, WC1|
|2 (best-of-3)||18||Top 3 seeds in each division|
|Conference Final (best-of-7)||4||N/A|
|Stanley Cup Final (best-of-7)||2||N/A|
If one of the lowest ranked teams were to pull it off, it would involve winning eighteen games against six different opponents. We’d never shut up about the Cinderella story run of those Arizona Coyotes, but it wouldn’t feel like if a team overcame this gauntlet they’d have an easy path at all.
7. Cancel the season and start a new one when viable
Cancelled seasons have happened in the past due the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919, but even then that was in a six-team league with an 8-10 game regular season (each conference played a different amount).
In this scenario, nobody wins the Stanley Cup, everyone wonders “what if?”, and instead of 30 teams going away dissatisfied, 31 teams do.
It would be an ugly look, but it’s a precedent being set by many pro leagues already in Europe. If the hiatus goes on long enough, it might be the only sensible thing to do.