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.