Hockey is not back quite yet, but we know what it is going to look like when it does return. The NHL revealed its playoff format for when the 2019-20 season resumes and 24 teams will get the chance to compete for Lord Stanley's Cup. Since finishing the regular season was not feasible, a change to the playoff format for this season was warranted. When you change the postseason rules midseason, however, it is not going to affect every team the same way. Some teams will benefit from those changes and others will not.
After a few days to digest and analyze the new format and what it will mean, here are the big winners and losers.
Winner: Chicago, Montreal
With tight playoff races in either conference, you can understand why the NHL felt it would be fair to allow more than just 16 teams the chance to compete for the Cup. Having said, that, most people probably would have been fine with just 20 teams, maybe even 22. But inlcuding teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens with 24 teams? That's a bit of a stretch.
Chicago and Montreal were not going to make the playoffs. Sure, we have seen some crazy finishes to the regular season before, but the Blackhawks had just 12 games left to make up a six-point gap and jump over four teams just to make the second wild card spot. The Canadiens had dug themselves an even deeper hole with 10 points separating them from the second wild card.
We all know why the NHL would want to do this. When you cast the postseason net wide enough to include Chicago and Montreal, you've just added to major markets that the league would not have gotten in a normal season. And you know what? I'm OK with it.
Every sports league that has seen its season interrupted by the coronavirus is trying to find ways to recoup losses. It's pretty obvious this is why the NHL went with 24 teams, but I'll take this approach over the MLB's. Better the NHL open the playoffs to a few extra teams to get those markets instead of the highly contentious negotiation in the MLB over how much the players will get paid this season.
There is only one team that sits in second place in its division that did not receive a first-round bye as a top-four seed and that team is the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers, who have 83 points, lost out on the last top seed in the west to the Dallas Stars, who have 82 points. Since the seeds are based on points percentage and not points, Dallas was able to sneak in over Edmonton.
The fact that the Oilers do not get a first round bye is not why they are one of the losers of the playoff format, however. In fact, that may actually be a good thing (we'll get into the byes later). The issue is more about their first-round opponent, Chicago.
The Blackhawks did not have a good season overall and, in a normal year, would not be in the playoffs. Having said that, now that they are in, there are few teams anyone would want to play less in the play-in round than a Chicago team featuring Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford.
If you want to win the Cup, you are going to have to beat good teams anyway and Edmonton will have no excuse if they lose to the Blackhawks, but it sure seems like the Oilers are not getting much of a reward for finishing second in their division this season.
The Stars sat in third place in the Central Division when the season was paused. Had they remained there, it would have meant a first-round matchup against either St. Louis or Colorado. Instead, Dallas managed to sneak into the top four in the conference despite having one less point than Edmonton, get a bye through the play-in round and won't have to play St. Louis, Colorado or Vegas in the first round.
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Losers: Trade deadline sellers
Chicago knew it wasn't going to make the playoff and traded goalie Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights at the trade deadline. Montreal traded away Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins. My favorite of all is the fact that the New York Rangers traded Brady Skjei to the Carolina Hurricanes...who they will now play in the play-in round.
Are those trades still made if Chicago, Montreal and New York expected to make the playoffs? I seriously doubt it.
Winner: Teams that lose the play-in round
Getting eliminated in the play-in round and seeing the postseason end before it ever really got going would be a blow to any team, but a chance at a top-three draft pick is a pretty darn good consolation prize.
Stick with me here. The rules for the NHL draft lottery this year are complex to say the least, but I will try to explain it as best I can. The lottery will take place on June 26 and three teams will be selected. The teams in the draft lottery are the seven teams to miss the playoffs plus eight placeholder positions. Since the lottery is taking place before the play-in rounds can be played, the league is reserving eight spots for the teams that lose in that initial round. If all three lottery picks go to the seven teams that are not in the playoffs, the draft lottery is done. If a placeholder gets picked for any of those three slots, however, there will be a second phase to the lottery between the eight teams eliminated in the play-in to determine those picks. All eight teams at that point will be given equal odds of winning.
So basically if you lose the play-in round and a placeholder gets selected in the draft lottery, congratulations, you now have a chance at a top-three pick.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were third place in the Metropolitan Division when the season paused, six points ahead of the first team out of the playoffs. The Penguins were going to reach the postseason which means they would not have been a lottery team and would have been out of the sweepstakes for Alexis Lafreniere, the projected first-overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft. Now they will have to face Montreal and, though they should win that series, what would happen if goalie Carey Price stands on his head and Pittsburgh is eliminated? Suddenly the Penguins would be in the running for one of those top three picks. The same goes for a team like Edmonton who will play Chicago. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the OIlers could lose to the Blackhawks, but then they could possibly get the chance of adding another star player through the draft.
Loser: The top four seeds
With no fans, the top seeds were already going to lose out on home-ice advantage, but the NHL did not do enough to reward them for their regular season. In fact, I would go so far as to say the top seeds are at a disadvantage in this playoff format.
No team is a bigger loser from this format than the Boston Bruins who boasted an eight-point lead in the conference and six-point lead in the league on March 12. The top seed in the East was all but wrapped up. Now with all four seeds competing in a round-robin tournament, the Bruins will have to earn the top spot they essentially already earned all over again or they could fall to as low as fourth in the east.
And then there's the bye. At face value, of course a bye past the play-in round is an advantage. Upsets happen all the time in the NHL so getting to skip a round is great. The problem is that the top teams will have to play teams coming off of playoff series wins and the only game action they will have to prepare is three round-robin games. I would be shocked if the top seeds have a winning record in the first game of their playoff series. There is no way a team can match the intensity and cohesion of their opponents after just three round-robin games. It's not the same as a do-or-die playoff series and I think that puts the top seeds at a disadvantage after the play-in round.
Winner: Alex Ovechkin
The end of the regular season means that Ovechkin has officially won his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's leading scorer. He finished tied with David Pastrnak with 48 goals. This is the third straight season Ovechkin has claimed the title.
Loser: Alex Ovechkin
The end of the regular season also means Ovechkin will not reach 50 goals. Had he done so, he would have joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players in NHL history to reach the 50-goal milestone nine times.
At 34 years old, each year it becomes less and less likely that Ovechkin will be able to continue scoring at the rate that he does. If he is not able to reach 50 goals again, it will certainly feel as if he was robbed of his chance to reach another significant career milestone by the coronavirus.
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