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Daniel Winnik calls current playoff format 'the stupidest thing ever'

Daniel Winnik calls current playoff format 'the stupidest thing ever'

If you’re frustrated by the NHL’s current playoff format, Daniel Winnik feels your pain.

The playoff format has become a topic of conversation around the NHL recently as the top three teams in the NHL and four of the top five all hail from the Metropolitan Division. Because of the league’s divisional playoff format, the first place team will play a wild-card team in the first round, while the second and third place team will have to play each other with the winner of each series squaring off in the second round.

That guarantees that two of the top three teams in the NHL will be eliminated by the second round and that just doesn’t make much sense to Winnik.

“It's stupid,” he said. “It's the stupidest thing ever. I don't know why it's not 1 to 8, I don't know why we got away from that.”

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The obvious flaw of the news system is that, by restricting the top three teams to play within one division, in years like this where there is one super conference, it means an unfavorable first-round matchup for a team that is one of the best in the entire league. As of Monday, Columbus and Pittsburgh are second and third in the entire NHL standings and their reward would be the chance to play one another in the very first round. Also, by adding a wild card that does not stay within the division, there is an obvious benefit for a team like the New York Rangers to finish fourth and switch to the Atlantic side of the bracket.

There is also a potential for the third place team in one division to actually finish lower in the standings than a wild card team, but not have to play the best team in the conference. We saw that in 2016. The Detroit Red Wings had the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference, but the third best in the Atlantic. Instead of having to play the top-seeded Capitals in the first round, they played the Tampa Bay Lightning who finished second in the Atlantic, but sixth overall in the conference.

What makes things worse, as Winnik points out, is that the current playoff system isn’t even that good and doing what is was originally set up to accomplish.

“Part of the point of it was to reduce travel, but it only reduces travel if you finish in your division, if you finish second and third,” he said.

In theory, having teams play within the division should cut down on travel, but as wild card teams can come from either division, it fails to accomplish that. Last season featured a first-round matchup between the Anaheim Ducks, winners of the Pacific, and a wild card Nashville Predators team. And, since the Predators switched into the Pacific bracket, once they beat the Ducks they had to play the San Jose Sharks in the second round.

If geography isn't your thing, let's just say Nashville is nowhere close to either Anaheim or San Jose.

Most damning, however, is the fact that the divisonal foramt undercuts rivalries by making it more likely that rivals play in the earlier rounds.

First and foremost, the divisional format was created to develop rivalries. By pitting divisional teams against one another, that means teams that play one another frequently in the regular season are more likely to play in the playoffs every year. But, to use the Caps as an example, unless Pittsburgh makes it into the playoffs as a wild card team and play in the Atlantic, they will always play Washington in the first or second round, never in the conference final.

“You can't manufacture a rivalry,” Winnik said. “There's already rivalries between us and Pittsburgh, us and the Rangers. The way I see it now, I'm sure the fans are getting sick of seeing the same two teams play each other in the first round, second round.”

In the previous format, the winner of each division was one of the top three seeds in each conference and then the remaining five teams were seeded according to the standings regardless of division. No. 1 would play No. 8, No. 2 would play No. 7, etc. and each team was re-seeded at the end of each round. So instead of a set bracket, the highest seed was guaranteed to play the lowest seed in each round.

As an illustration, and bearing in mind that the NHL has gone from six divisions to four, here is what the first-round playoff matchups in the east would look like as of Monday:

1. Washington Capitals (Metropolitan winner)
8. Toronto Maple Leafs

2. Montreal Canadiens (Atlantic winner)
7. Boston Bruins

3. Columbus Blue Jackets
6. Ottawa Senators

4. Pittsburgh Penguins
5. New York Rangers

This format, however, is not without its faults.

“The other way wasn't perfect,” Winnik said. “For years this division, the southeast, the winner of that division should have been out of the playoffs, but at least that made a little more sense.”

It should also be noted that if there were no upsets in the first round, the above projection would still give a second-round matchup between Washington and Pittsburgh. But it does seem fairer than a format that moves New York down to seventh simply because of their division and forces the second and third best teams in the NHL to play one another in the first round.

That's a concept that clearly has Winnik a bit…befuddled.

“I don't understand it and I think everyone hopes it gets fixed after this season.”

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NHL, NHL Players' Association agree to tentative return-to-play plan, CBA extension

NHL, NHL Players' Association agree to tentative return-to-play plan, CBA extension

The NHL and NHL Players' Association came to a tentative agreement on a Return to Play plan and added four years to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement on Monday evening.

Players will report to their team facilities by July 13 for training camps as the league attempts to return from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Twenty four teams will travel to the two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, on July 26 for round-robin games, qualifying playoff games and the full 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The memorandum of understanding still must be approved by the full NHL Board of Governors and the NHLPA’s Executive Board and full membership. That process will take place this week with no formal date set for ratification by all parties. 

That brings the NHL a huge step closer to its long-awaited return to the ice. There are still hurdles between now and then, however.

MLS was set to begin play this week on its own before FC Dallas had to withdraw from the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando when 10 players and a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. The NHL shut down on March 12 and entered the day with 35 players testing positive for the novel coronavirus since June 8.

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There is still a long way to go before the Capitals arrive in Toronto to play round-robin games against the Flyers, Bruins and Lightning. Those games and the qualifying round for now are set to start Aug. 1. 

That’s the big news for this season. There was more news for the future, though. The NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was set to expire after the 2021-22 season. 

Now, it will continue through 2025-26. NHL players will return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 (Beijing) and 2026 (Milan) - as long as the league and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can agree on terms. That’s always a giant question mark, but at least there’s hope there. Players were furious at having to miss the 2018 games in South Korea after the IIHF and the NHL failed to agree. 

It could still be a week before NHL players can approve the deal and the coronavirus has proved for months it can wreck anything at any time. But for now, hockey is on track to return next month. 

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Life in the bubble: NHL details protocols for Phase 4 of return-to-play plan

Life in the bubble: NHL details protocols for Phase 4 of return-to-play plan

With the NHL season set to resume in a little over three weeks, the league has begun to finalize a plan for its bubble set up in two hub cities.

In an expanded postseason format, 24 teams will reportedly travel to Edmonton and Toronto to complete the 2019-2020 season and crown a Stanley Cup Champion in October. 

With speculations of how the NHL will complete its season brewing for weeks, the league created a 47-page document detailing how Phase 4 of its return will occur. The Athletic obtained a copy of this document and explained the extremely detailed rules and regulations.

Life inside the bubble remains a hot topic with the NHL finalizing its return-to-play plan and entering Phase 3 around July 13. 

From extremely intense testing protocols to elevator and water bottle regulations, here is what to expect from the NHL’s return.

Traveling parties

Similar to most bubble setups, the NHL will allow a limited traveling party to the hub cities. Each team is allowed 52 people in that party with no more than 31 players, three coaches, two athletic trainers, one team physician, one equipment manager, one massage therapist, one team psychiatrist/chiropractor, one team social media manager, one security official and one representative to serve as the compliance officer.

The new role of the compliance officer is tasked with certifying that the team complies with all Phase 4 protocol daily.

Every member of the traveling party as well as every staff member at the arena or in the bubble is assigned to a participant group based on their responsibilities. The participant groups determine how much contact they have with others and how strict their testing must be.

Group 1: Essential personnel to games being played

  • Who: Players, club personnel, on-ice officials, NHL hygiene officers, club compliance officers, locker room attendants, locker room security, facility compliance staffers, hotel conference service managers, world feed microphone staffers, event-level NHL staffers (social media, tech ops, penalty box officials, communications, hockey ops, player safety, NHL Studios), NHL staffers, NHLPA staffers, NHL event medical directors and those with the RT-PCR testing company.
  • Contact: These individuals will maintain close contact with one another but should have limited exposure to players.
  • Housing and testing: Group 1 will be housed in a secure-zone hotel with daily testing and temperature checks.t6

Group 2: Individuals with business functions

  • Who: Off-ice officials, credential staffer, certain hotel staffers and event coverage medical staffers
  • Contact: These individuals will not have access to player spaces. 
  • Housing and testing: Group 2 will also be housed in a secure-zone hotel and require daily testing and temperature checks.

Group 3: People with repeated contact with Groups 1 and 2 but for short durations

  • Who: Security, some event coverage medical staff, bartenders, food servers and ice crew
  • Contact: Group 3 is allowed limited contact with Groups 1 and 2.
  • Housing and testing: They will be housed in a separate hotel, may return home but will be tested and undergo temperature checks daily.

Group 4: Those with limited exposure to Groups 1-3

  • Who: Arena food and beverage workers, PA announcer, housekeepers, kitchen and prep staff and transportation staff
  • Contact: Group 4 will have very limited contact with the first three groups.
  • Housing and testing: They will also be housed in a separate hotel or at home and will undergo daily COVID-19 tests and temperature checks.

Group 5: No contact with any other group member

  • Who: Third-party vendors, other arena staff, other hotel staff, fire marshal, police and media
  • Contact: Group 5 is not exposed to any other group.
  • Housing and testing: They will be housed in a separate hotel or at home. They will not require coronavirus testing but will have daily temperature checks.

Finally, the NHL acknowledged that the bubble makes it difficult to players to support their families at home, so each team will assist in providing grocery and errand delivery services to their remaining family members at home. As needed, the league will also provide medical services like COVID-19 testing to players’ families.

Testing

Testing in the bubble will be done very regularly and thoroughly. Players, coaches, arena staff, hotel housekeepers and bartenders as well as many others may be tested daily. The league expects it may exceed 2,000 tests per day.

If players experience symptoms, they must immediately self-quarantine and contact a team doctor to undergo testing. If a player tests positive but is asymptomatic, they will receive an RT-PCR test to confirm the diagnosis. If positive, they will be expected to self-isolate until cleared. If negative, they must remain in isolation before they can be retested a day later. A person who tests positive and is symptomatic won’t be subject to additional tests unless a physician has reason to doubt the results.

If a player tests positive, they must show two negative tests to be deemed clear. Doctors must also declare players fit to return to game action.

Once a player tests positive, a contact-tracing investigation will immediately begin. Anyone who was in contact with that individual for 15 minutes or longer at a distance of six feet or less will have to self-isolate until further testing can be conducted.

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Safety precautions and hygiene in the secure zone

The NHL established a number of safety precautions and regulations within the secure zone and while at games. All members are expected to remain six feet apart at all times, including on planes and busses and while eating. Masks must be worn at all times except for when on the ice, coaches on the bench, broadcasters on air, officials during a game, players during an interview, while eating or drinking or while in someone’s own room. The league also advised players to wash hands regularly and be cautious with high-fives and fist bumps.

Within the secure zone, every player gets their own room and no guests are allowed in those rooms besides housekeepers and engineers. Family members who enter the bubble will be given their own room and must satisfy testing and quarantine requirements if they wish to reside in a player’s room. Every team will have its own floor.

The league also said elevator capacity must be limited and advised players not to use their fingers when pressing the buttons but rather their knuckles or elbow. Talking is prohibited in elevators.

Dining will be done in a buffet-style with plexiglass barriers separating servers from players. Players can also use contactless room service if preferred. 

While lobby and bar spaces will remain open, the NHL remarked that details for social activities will be provided closer to Phase 4 but cited the importance of mental health in that section.

In terms of in-game hygiene, water bottles cannot be shared, must be labeled and separated on the bench. Towels may not be shared either, and teams must have a minimum of 100 clean towels on the bench. Benches must be disinfected between periods.

Leaving the secure zone

Unlike other proposed bubble setups, the NHL is allowing its players to leave and return to the secure zone under certain circumstances. A player may leave if he is receiving a medical assessment or retrieving medical supplies, if he needs a consultation with a doctor of his choice or under extenuating circumstances like the birth of a child, family illness, death or another important event.

If anyone leaves, they must undergo four consecutive negative PCR tests over a four-day period and be quarantined until that happens to return. 

Penalties for noncompliance

The penalties for not complying to these regulations are severe. For players, they can face a strict quarantine for 10-to-14 days if they do not obey hygiene regulations. Teams can face fines or lose a draft choice. Third-party vendors can face contract termination. And NHL staff could face dismissal.

Opting out/cancelation

Once the league ratifies the protocol, players must notify the NHL within three days if they plan to opt out of the season. Throughout Phase 4, the NHL or NHLPA may contact the other at any point if it believes games should be canceled, postponed, delayed or moved for safety reasons.

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