Momentum is growing for a finalized playoff format for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. While nothing is set in stone, most recent reports seem to point to a 24-team playoff field. But regardless of what the NHL may look like when play resumes, to some it won't matter. There are many who argue that the 2019-20 season is already tainted and if the league does insist on awarding the Stanley Cup, it should come with an "asterisk" as it was not won under fair or normal conditions. But that argument is ludicrous.
While we don't know exactly what the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will look like, we can be sure of one thing: it is going to look very different from the 2019 playoffs. The trying times we currently find ourselves in dictates a tweak to the playoff format, but I don't understand why a pause to the season and a different format should simply invalidate the 2020 champions.
Let me get one caveat out of the way. This is being written before the playoff format is finalized. I don't want to give a blanket column saying any format would be acceptable. There are limits. The Detroit Red Wings were on pace for 45 points this season which would make them the worst team since the 1999-00 Atlanta Thrashers (39 points) and the Thrashers did not have the benefit of the shootout. Any format that would include the Red Wings in the playoffs this year is invalid. Any format that does not have the Stanley Cup Final decided in a best of seven series is invalid. To me, that's that minimum standard for awarding a Cup, but otherwise, I am open to whatever else the league may decide.
I know there are many who don't agree so here are six reasons why the 2020 Stanley Cup champion will be legitimate regardless of how they get there.
Not liking the playoff format is not a reasonable reason to dismiss it
So you don't like the playoff format. Guess what? The regular playoff format is pretty dumb. It has been since 2014 when the league introduced the divisional format which is complete and utter nonsense. We see time and again the top two teams in a conference meeting in the second round all in the name of "rivalries" which the format has completely failed to artificially generate. I hate it and will continue to hate it until it's changed. But...that doesn't mean every winner of the Cup since 2014 doesn't count.
Eventually, the NHL is going to finalize its playoff format. Your gut reaction may be that you don't like it and that's OK. But just because your initial reaction is negative doesn't mean they would be better off canceling the season so as not to offend your delicate sensibilities.
Home-ice matters, but not to the degree that the lack of it should invalidate the postseason
The Boston Bruins were the front-runners to win the Presidents' Trophy. Over the course of the season, they earned the right to hold home-ice advantage in Boston heading into the playoffs. Instead, they will most likely end up playing in a centralized location with no fans at all. While there are still some advantages the top teams will get in the standings such as the second line change reserved for home teams and matchups against teams lower in the standings, there is no question the Bruins are losing out on one of the top advantages of earning the top seed.
Home ice certainly matters, but it certainly didn't help any of the division winners in 2019, all four of whom were eliminated in the first round fo the playoffs. The last time the top team in the regular season won the Stanley Cup was in 2013 when the Chicago Blackhawks did it. The top team has won the Cup only six times in the past 30 years.
There is no question the top teams in the standings are missing out on home-ice advantage, but in a sport that sees more parity in its postseason than any other and shows each year how little home-ice actually means, why would the lack of home-ice advantage suddenly be a reason discredit the eventual champion?
Extra time for players to heal allows teams a second chance to use the roster they envisioned at the start of the season
Seeing the season paused or delayed does not mean it shouldn't count. That's a pretty unreasonable standard. If you do feel that way then you better throw out the 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons too as they were lockout-shortened seasons. The NHL has already had more regular-season games in 2019-20 than in either of the lockout-shortened seasons.
Obviously, this is different than a lockout as the disruption to the season did not happen at the start of it, but in the middle. Depending on how long it takes for teams to return, it may feel practically like a new season when play does finally resume, but with the trade deadline passed and extra time for players to heal, one could argue these teams are actually closer to those envisioned by the general managers and coaches at the start of the year as it allowed players to recover from injuries such as Dougie Hamilton in Carolina or Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay. And if you think that's not fair, it was pretty unfair to see those players injured in the first place, but that's life.
The format for awarding a Cup winner has changed multiple times since it was first awarded
Do you think the Stanley Cup Playoffs has to be a 16-team tournament? I guess every Cup before 1980 doesn't count then, right? That was the first year the playoff format switched to 16 teams. Do you think the only valid playoff format is to have every round be a best of seven series? The first round was actually a best of five until 1987.
A 16-team playoff with four rounds that are all best of seven is the established format for now and the 2020 playoff format is going to be different, but it is important to remember that the way in which the winner was determined has changed multiple times since the Cup was first awarded in 1893.
If the playoff format to determine the Cup winner had remained the same since its existence, changing the format now to accommodate the season pause would be a much tougher sell, but you can't argue the 2020 Cup winner should have an asterisk just because the playoffs look different than the year before.
It's not the first time the playoff format has benefitted teams that may not otherwise have made the playoffs
By expanding to 24 teams, don't be surprised to see a low seed make a deep run. A team like Chicago, for example, ranked 23rd in the league standings, could suddenly get hot and go deep. That's just the nature of hockey. Some will see that and grumble that the Blackhawks should not have even made it so the fact that they advance is proof of how flawed the expanded playoff is.
Every hockey fan knows the iconic picture of Bobby Orr flying through the air in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final. What you may not know is that that goal completed a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues, the third straight season in which the Bruins swept the Blues int he Stanley Cup Final. How did St. Louis keep making it? In 1967, the league expanded from six teams to 12 and split the league into two divisions. It then put all six expansion teams in their own division thus guaranteeing an expansion team would make the Stanley Cup Final. In 1970, the Blues finished the regular season in first place of the West Division despite having fewer points than five of the six teams in the East Division.
If you are going to cross your arms at seeing any surprise playoff runs in 2020, then you can go ahead and throw out 1968, 69 and 70 as well, including Orr's iconic goal.
You won't care about the format if your team wins
When a team is finally crowned the Stanley Cup champion, you will hear a lot more talk about an "asterisk" for the Cup winner...from fans of the 30 other teams. But if you're a Caps fan and see Washington go all the way, are you really going to feel like the Cup is tainted while watching Alex Ovechkin hoist the Cup for the second time? No, you're not and you know you're not.
You can't have it both ways. You can't say now that the winner of the Cup this year deserves an asterisk if you are going to change your tune as soon as your team wins. You also can't go all-in on cheering for your team and then say it doesn't count as soon as your team gets ousted. Either the playoffs count or they don't and when you see your team celebrating the Cup, you are not going to care how they got there.
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