NHL has plenty of options if season 2019/20 resumes

The NHL, like most sports leagues around the world, has temporarily postponed its 2019/20 season due to the Covid 19 virus and the fear for public safety. The league’s commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement on March 12th which officially announced the suspension of all NHL activities for the time being. Bettman and NHL fans across the globe hope to resume action in the coming weeks whereas the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) has officially cancelled its season and the playoffs.

Since the time frame for resuming games is unpredictable it’s unclear at the moment what the NHL has in mind if and when its teams get back on the ice. In a best-case scenario the league will be able to play out the remainder of the 82-game regular season and get in the full slate of playoff games. But with each passing week this may not be possible. Currently, the league has completed 1,082 of its 1,271 games this season.

The season would need to be extended either way whenever games resume and the first thing the NHL needs to do is make sure the rinks are available for games. Most teams have between 12 and 14 games remaining on their schedule and then four rounds of playoffs need to be played with the preferred length being four-of-seven game series.

If games resume in two or three weeks the league may try to fit everything in. If the break is extended there are plenty of options such as scrapping the rest of the regular-season contests or changing the playoff format. The league could shorten some of the postseason series to the best two-of-three and/or the best three-of-five formats. If the regular season games are eliminated though the NHL will have to come up with a method to decide which teams make the playoffs.

Since teams have played an unequal  number of games the fairest way to decide the playoff competitors would be to evaluate the league standings based on each team’s winning percentage. If teams are tied they could go to a head-to-head tie-breaking system or devise a different method. In addition, more teams could be added to the playoffs with a brand-new format put into place.

One thing’s for certain and that’s the fact Bettman wants to make sure the NHL has a Stanley Cup winner in 2019/20. The board of governors will have to come up with some creative solutions the longer the league is forced to sit out. Nobody wants to play to empty arenas but it may still be a better solution than having to wipe games off the schedule. Playing televised games in empty rinks could be an answer for a few weeks when the league returns.

The NHL may end up playing into July if necessary but there will also need to be some type of cutoff date on the calendar which will indicate when it’s too late to save the season. In the meantime, players have been advised to self isolate themselves but they also need to stay in the best condition possible and be ready for action at any given time. The league would likely let teams hold three-day training sessions before games officially face off again.

If there is any type of silver lining in the postponement of the season it will mean that some of the league’s injured players may have the chance to heal during the downtime. Several of the league’s top stars including Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche are currently on the sidelines.

The NHL will continue to monitor the situation and won’t return to the ice until medical professionals and the American and Canadian governments give the league the all-clear signal. Also, the league has announced the players will still receive their last two paycheques of the season while they wait in limbo. The last time the NHL cancelled a season was over a century ago when the 1918/19 campaign was halted after five games of the Stanley Cup final due to the Spanish flu breakout. There was also no cup winner in 2004/05 because of a lockout.

Philadelphia Flyers soar up the NHL standings

The Philadelphia Flyers are currently in the midst of a nine-game winning streak and have soared up the NHL standings because of it. As of March 9th, the team has a record of 41-20-7 with 232 goals for and 194 against. They had 89 points and were tied with the Washington Capitals for first place in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division. They were also tied for fourth place in the overall league standings.

Of course, a playoff spot isn’t guaranteed but the Flyers owned an eight point lead over the fourth place Columbus Blue Jackets in the Metropolitan with two games in hand. They were also 10 points in front of the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders who were tied for fifth place in the division on March 9 with the Islanders and Carolina having a game in hand on the Flyers. One of the main reasons for Philadelphia’s success of late has been the goaltending of sophomore Carter Hart.

The way Hart’s been playing lately it looks like the Flyers may have finally found a worthy franchise goalie after searching for one for many years. Flyers’ fans may be wary though considering the franchise has seen a league-leading total of eight goaltenders start a minimum of 99 contests for the team in the past 20 years. This includes netminders such as Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Ilya Bryzgalov and Antero Niittymaki.

Hart was drafted by the Flyers in 2016 in the second round with the 48th overall selection from the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL) and was the first goaltender taken that year. Hart recently returned to the Flyers’ lineup on February 10th after being sidelined for four weeks with an injury. Since making his return, Hart has gone 9-1 in his last 10 starts with a 92.9 save percentage and he’s won 11 of his last 12 decisions. He’s been excellent in net over the past few months after a terrible start during October.

The future looks very bright for Hart since he’s just 21 years old as most goalies don’t mature until later in their careers. In fact, there have been just six NHL goalies to play in 40 games before the age of 22 with a save percentage above 91.0. The other five were Roberto Luongo, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Martin Brodeur, Carey Price and Felix Potvin. The 6-foot-2-inch, 180 lb Hart of Sherwood Park, Alberta had played 73 regular-season NHL games as of March 9th with a 40-25-4 record while posting a 91.5 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average.

This means Hart tops the list of under-22 goalies when it comes to save percentage. He went 16-13-1 last season with a 2.83 GAA and a 91.5 save percentage as the Flyers missed the playoffs. So far this season Hart is 24-12-3 with a 2.43 GAA and a 91.3 save percentage. Since being drafted he’s played just 18 games in the minors as he went 9-8-1 with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League in 2018/19 while posting a 3.05 GAA and a 90.2 save percentage.

Hart has actually performed better at the NHL level since being called up in December of 2018 than in the AHL. And unless the Flyers collapse in their last 14 games of the regular season he should have no problem leading the team to the playoffs this spring. If they do happen to make the postseason, Hart and his Flyers’ teammates could possibly be one of the favourites to go all the way to the Stanley Cup final if they can continue their fine play of late for the next couple of months.

Tampa captain Steven Stamkos out for rest of regular season

The Tampa Bay Lightning will have to battle for first place in the Atlantic Division and the league without the services of their captain Steven Stamkos for the rest of the regular season. The Lightning, who won the President’s Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team in 2018/19, have an outside chance to hang onto their crown this year but it’ll be an uphill climb.

As of March, 2nd, the day Stamkos is set to undergo surgery in St. Louis, Tampa Bay sat third overall in the league table with 87 points from a record of 41-19-5 but had won just one of their last four games. They trail the Boston Bruins for first place in both the Atlantic Division and the overall league standings by seven points with a game in hand on the Bruins.

Tampa shouldn’t have a problem hanging on to their playoff spot though as they were sitting 14 points ahead of the fourth-place Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand. However, with the Lightning announcing that Stamkos will miss from six to eight weeks of action, there’s a good chance he won’t be ready for the first round of the postseason.

The 30-year-old Stamkos needed surgery to repair a core muscle problem after apparently aggravating it in a 4-3 home defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 25th.  Stamkos, who scored a career-high 60 goals in 2011/12 had 29 goals and 37 assists for 66 points after 57 games this season. This ranked him second on the squad in both scoring categories behind Nikita Kucherov who had 31 goals and 49 assists for 80 points in 60 games.

Stamkos was the first overall draft pick in 2008 and he’s spent his entire NHL career with Tampa Bay. He’s played 803 regular-season games in the NHL up to now with 422 goals and 410 assists under his belt for a total of 832 points. He also has 155 power-play goals to his name along with 61 game-winners. The 6-foot-1-inch, 195 lb center from Markham, Ontario has added 23 goals and 30 assists for 53 points in 70 playoff contests with 11 power-play markers and a pair of game-winners.

This is the third time Stamkos has missed a considerable amount of playing time due to injury. He played just 37 games in 2013/14 due to a broken tibia and only 17 times in 2016/17 because of a torn meniscus cartilage in his right knee. He’s still managed to win two Rocket Richard Trophies as the league’s top goal scorer in 2009/10 and 2011/12 and is a two-time Second Team All Star. In addition, he’s scored the most career points for any NHL player born in the 1990’s.

Stamkos holds numerous Tampa Bay Lightning records and milestones as a player and will likely be headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame when he retires and becomes eligible. His absence will be a big blow to the club as it tries to make amends for last season’s dismal playoff performance. The Lightning won 62 games in 2018/19 to tie the Detroit Red Wings of 1995/96 for the most wins in a single season. However, they then fell apart in the playoffs and were swept in four straight games by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the very first round.