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Winners and losers from the NHL's 2020 playoff format

Winners and losers from the NHL's 2020 playoff format

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.

Loser: Edmonton

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.

Winners: Dallas

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.


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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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.


Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?


Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.


For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.


Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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