Breaking down Blackhawks' path to Stanley Cup in 24-team Return to Play format

Breaking down Blackhawks' path to Stanley Cup in 24-team Return to Play format

The NHL and NHL Players' Association officially ironed out the final details of its 24-team Return to Play format, which is another positive step in the right direction as both sides look to reach an overall agreement on resuming play.

Here's a brief rundown of the most notable items from Thursday's announcement:

— The qualifying round will be composed of a best-of-5 series while the four other rounds will be best-of-7. 

— The top four teams from each conference will play each other in a round-robin format to determine the No. 1-4 seeds. Regular season points percentage will serve as the tiebreaker.

— Instead of the traditional bracketed format in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NHL will reseed after each round, with the highest remaining seed in each conference facing the lowest remaining seed, etc.

— In the qualifying round and first and second rounds, the higher-seeded team will be designated as the home team. In the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, the team with the higher regular season points percentage will be considered the home team.

The details shouldn't come as much of a surprise. It was important to the players to maintain the integrity of the playoffs while making sure the teams that had a strong regular season were rewarded with a favorable path. For the Blackhawks, the challenge got a little more difficult but that was to be expected.

This is what the Western Conference playoff picture looks like:

1. St. Louis Blues 
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Vegas Golden Knights
4. Dallas Stars

5. Edmonton Oilers vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks
6. Nashville Predators vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes
7. Vancouver Canucks vs. 10. Minnesota Wild
8. Calgary Flames vs. 9. Winnipeg Jets

Should they upset the Oilers in the qualifying round, the Blackhawks would face the highest seed of the round-robin winner in the first round of the playoffs. Right now, that's the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues, who swept the Blackhawks in a regular-season series for the first time in their 53-year history. The Blackhawks went 0-4-0 and were outscored by the Blues 16-8 this season.

Here's how the Blackhawks fared against the three other top seeds in the West:

— 1-3-0 vs. Colorado with a minus-8 goal differential (19 goals for, 11 goals against)
— 1-1-1 vs. Vegas with a minus-2 goal differential (nine goals for, seven goals against)
— 1-1-1 vs. Dallas with a plus-2 goal differential (five goals for, three goals against)

If the Blackhawks advance past the first round, their path will only get tougher. As the last seed in their respective conference, they will draw the highest seed as each round progresses under the re-seeding format.

But nobody should be disappointed about that. The Blackhawks have been given new life and Chicago will take it.

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Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

In an effort to protect the players, the NHL will not disclose injuries in Phase 4, deputy commissioner Bill Daly revealed in a Saturday afternoon video call with the league and player representatives.

"Medical privacy is important in this process," Daly said.

Normally, teams are allowed to share injury-related information but are not necessarily required to. The Blackhawks are one of the teams that have become more transparent in that area after changing their policy going into the 2018-19 season.

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In this situation, the NHL is prohibiting clubs from doing so to keep the process confidential and eliminate speculation between a hockey-related injury and positive COVID-19 test results. The NHL, instead, will release the overall number of players who test positive for COVID-19 over the course of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but will not disclose the names of those infected.

The policy is strictly for the rest of the 2019-20 season and not a new long-term policy, although it remains unclear how things will be handled for the 2020-21 campaign.

It's the right move but will obviously present challenges if a star player on a contender is suddenly not available for a series, especially once we get into the later rounds.

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

There's good news and bad news for the Blackhawks as the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed to a new six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement extension that runs through the 2025-26 season and includes an escrow provision that could add one additional year to the deal.

The good news is, hockey is back and the Blackhawks have a shot at making a Stanley Cup run after the league generously included them in the 24-team Return to Play format. And if they get eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round, the Blackhawks will have a 12.5 percent chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick and drafting stud winger Alexis Lafraniere. Not a bad consolation.

The bad news? The upper limit of the salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million for the 2020-21 season and remain that way until hockey-related revenue reaches $3.33 million, and only increase by more than $1 million per year until HRR surpasses $4.8 billion again, which could take several years.

For reference: One week before the league put its season on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced the salary cap for the 2020-21 campaign would be in between $84 and $88.2 million. Now it won't come close to the low end of that mark for at least three or four years, which is a tough pill to swallow because teams were preparing for the ceiling to reach a different level following a new U.S. television deal and the addition of Seattle as the 32nd team for the 2021-22 season.

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Only six other teams had fewer cap space available at the regular season's pause than the Blackhawks, who had $175,558 to spare. And their financial situation is about to get way more complicated.

Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome are among the most notable restricted free agents who are due fairly significant pay raises, along with Drake Caggiula on a smaller scale. And then there's Corey Crawford, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Blackhawks may have some difficult choices to make, but ones that won’t happen until the offseason.

“My conversations with them have been more checking in, see how they’re doing,” GM Stan Bowman said on June 11 of the pending RFAs and UFAs. “As far as future signings and contracts and whatnot, I’ve told their agents that at this point, it’s premature. There are too many uncertainties to know what the salary cap or what the format for the future will be. So we’re just going to wait until we have more information.

"In my conversations with other managers around the league, everyone’s taking the same approach. It’s really difficult to be signing contracts for the future when we haven’t even finished this season yet, and we don’t know what the next year’s going to look like. I imagine that’s all going to happen in the offseason, whenever that might be.”

While the Blackhawks are trying to navigate through their financial challenges for next season, equal attention must be placed on the future during these unprecedented circumstances.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are all scheduled to become UFAs at the end of the 2022-23 season, which is the same year Alex DeBrincat will be seeking a new deal as a pending RFA. Top prospects Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach, both of whom were slide candidates, played in more than nine NHL games this season, which means the first year of their entry-level contracts were burned and will be due new contracts following the 2021-22 campaign instead of the 2022-23 season. 

Here's another hurdle: Unlike in 2013, there will be no compliance buyouts handed out to provide cap relief for teams in desperate need of it. The Blackhawks would’ve certainly welcomed that.

Yes, it’s exciting that hockey is finally back. And yes, it’s exciting that the Blackhawks have a chance at making a Stanley Cup run, no matter how slim their odds may be.

But for the long-term future of the Blackhawks, it's more important than ever for the front office to precisely map out what the roster could look like for next season and beyond and break down how the puzzle pieces can financially fit under the salary cap for years to come.