While the NHL revealed the basic outline of the Stanley Cup playoff format on May 26 there were still specifics that needed to be worked out, including the length of postseason series and whether to keep a bracket format.
On Thursday, the NHL and NHLPA resolved those issues. According to the league, each round after the play-in round will be a best-of-seven series and teams will be re-seeded after each round. The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun was the first to report the news.
The NHL halted play on March 12 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic before announcing last month a return-to-play plan that was light on specifics.
While the play-in round will remain a best-of-five series, the remaining four rounds after that will be a best-of-seven which will look familiar to NHL fans. It takes 16 wins to win the Stanley Cup under normal circumstances and it still does, excluding the play-in round which the league has made clear it does not consider a part of the playoffs.
The reason why the length of each series was an issue was because of time constraints. The NHL intends to play a full 82-game season in 2020-21, but the longer the 2020 postseason takes, the later it will be before the next season can begin. A regular NHL postseason lasts about two months. With the play-in round and four best-of-seven rounds, the 2020 postseason could last a bit longer.
Another issue was what to do with seeding. The NHL and NHLPA elected to scrub the bracket format in favor of re-seeding after each round. This was the way the playoffs were typically organized prior to the divisional playoff format.
With no home-ice advantage for any team - everyone will be restricted to hub cities and playing games without fans - the league needed to give some benefit to the top seeds so as not to invalidate both the regular season and the round-robin games each of the top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play. Re-seeding was really the only option. If the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens upset the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, the top seed should play Montreal which would be the lowest seed left in the conference.
A bracket format, however, is built on the assumption the top seed will win each matchup meaning the No. 4 would have been set up to play the winner of No. 5 vs. No. 12 - Montreal in this example - while the No. 1 team would have to play the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 play-in series regardless of whether there were any upsets in that round.
From the NHL's perspective, one of the benefits to the divisional format was being able to organize the postseason in a bracket that fans could follow. In this situation, however, trying to keep the bracket didn't make sense given the wide disparity between the seeds and the obvious disadvantage to the top seeds in the event of an upset.
These updates show continued progress between the NHL and NHLPA, but the big issues regarding health and safety protocols still need to be worked out before we see the return of hockey.
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