Wednesday, March 11th, 2020. The Blues had just beaten the Anaheim Ducks 4-2, won their 42nd game of the season and moved to the top spot in the Western Conference standings. That would mark the last day the NHL would play hockey games before the league shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been many points over the last few months where it felt like sports would be unable to return to action, but we are finally in a place where it looks like the NHL and other North American sports leagues are ready to go. We’ve already seen the return of Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball along with the National Basketball Association set to resume this week. We now know that the NHL is also about to start with the first game taking place this Saturday, August 1st.
So, what’s new?
Are they going to finish the regular season?
In a word, no. When the league was shut down, teams had between 11-13 games remaining in their schedule. That means every team played roughly 85% of their season.
So, what does that mean in terms of the playoffs?
During a normal season, 16 teams make the playoffs, 8 from the Eastern Conference, and 8 from the Western Conference. Because teams have played a different number of games depending on their schedule when the league stopped, it was voted on that they would allow the top 12 teams from each conference to participate in the return to play plan. This meant that the 7 worst teams, 4 in the East and 3 in the West, were so far out of the playoff race that they will not be participating.
For the conspiracy theorist out there, some believe this expansion from 8 to 12 teams was made to guarantee the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, and Montreal Canadiens, three of the top hockey markets would be included and maximize viewership and interest.
How will the 24-team restart go exactly?
Great question! The initial restart will be broken up into a Conference Seeding Round Robin and a Qualifying Round. The teams were put into the two rounds based upon their points percentage by game since teams had all played different numbers of total games.
The Conference Seeding Round Robin will be comprised of the four best teams from each conference. For example, the Western Conference’s four best teams were the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Dallas Stars. These four teams will play each other to determine which of the top four seeds each will get and also to ensure that the teams have a chance to get on the ice and get up to game speed before the playoffs begin.
The Qualifying Round will then take place with the remaining eight teams from each conference. Using the Western Conference as the example again, the #5 seeded Edmonton Oilers will play the #12 Chicago Blackhawks (6v11, 7v10, 8v9) in a best-of-5 series. The winning teams will advance to the playoffs and the losing teams will be sent home and their season will end.
It’s at this point that we will have 16 teams in total, 8 from the Round Robin and 8 from the Qualifying Round. From this point on, the NHL Playoffs will play out in the exact same structure as they normally do.
Where are the games going to take place?
To avoid teams traveling and limit exposure during the pandemic, the NHL will be setting up all teams in two designated hub cities. Those cities will be Toronto for all Eastern Conference teams and Edmonton for all Western Conference teams. The Stanley Cup Finals will then take place in Edmonton to crown a champion.
I saw some news that the #1 overall pick in the NHL Draft will go to a team TBD following the Draft Lotter. What exactly does that mean?
This may be the most fascinating component to the entire restart. The way the NHL Draft works is there is a lottery that’s weighted so the worst teams have the greatest odds to land the #1 overall pick. This lottery format is used to determine which teams pick in which order during the first part of the draft. Since there were 7 teams that did not have a strong enough record to participate in the restart, they were each entered into the draft lottery along with one “To Be Determined Team”. The shocking twist was that the TBD Team which had the worst odds to get the #1 overall pick actually won the draft lottery!
This means that the 8 teams that are eliminated from the Qualifying Round I mentioned above will all have equal odds (12.5%) of getting this #1 overall draft pick. The league will now have a second lottery drawing once the Qualifying Round concludes to see which lucky team gets this pick and a potential superstar player. It’s going to be one heck of a consolation prize for a team that goes out early once play resumes. Under one of the most extreme circumstances, you could see a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins lose their first-round matchup to #12 seeded Montreal and get this #1 pick. For the sake of perspective, Pittsburgh is the #5 seed in the East but only won 2 fewer games than the St. Louis Blues who are #1 in the West. Oh, and that Pittsburgh team has a guy you might have heard of names Sidney Crosby, one of the best players to ever lace up a pair of skates. This kind of wild scenario will make for a chaotic Qualifying Round and the chance for a team to have a get that #1 overall pick when they would otherwise never come close to securing.
What do our sports staff experts have to say?
What is your excitement level for the NHL restart?
Sean Jeffries – Not very. Honestly, I just don’t see how it’s going to be safe for the players. I definitely miss watching though.
Greg Bussmann – I am very excited. I think the NHL made the best of a bad situation and set up a great tournament for their fans. It should be packed with excitement from start to finish.
Dan Suchanek – I’m happy to have it back. Hockey is one of the greatest sports to watch and it will be interesting to see it in August and September leading right into the 2020/2021 season.
Stuart Hultgren – Middling, but only because I’m mentally used to there not being any hockey in July. Once things get closer to starting, I’ll snap out of it and get excited again.
Andrew Corns – Very high. With the Premier League wrapping up, my full sports attention will now be devoted to the NHL and NBA. I don’t think it’s possible for the NHL to have come up with a better return to play format than they’ve constructed. Between the structure in place and the intrigue of the #1 overall draft pick going to a team that loses in the Qualifying Round, every matchup will be worth watching.
Do you like the format with 24 teams essentially vying for the Stanley Cup Championship?
Sean Jeffries – It’s exciting. Strange times call for strange formats. It’s anyone’s Cup to go win.
Greg Bussmann – In a perfect world, no, I like the traditional format, but everything has changed now, and this seems to be a decent (hopefully) one-time workaround.
Dan Suchanek – In a perfect world, no. 24 teams is way too many. But I also think the 16 teams that normally make it is too many. Can we call it the “Finals Tournament” for this one year because “Playoffs” doesn’t suffice?
Stuart Hultgren – I might be in the minority here, but I actually enjoy expanding the field. During the pandemic, there will be a hit to competitive balance no matter how things get arranged, so might as well embrace the quirky things that will come with this format. Not to mention, I always want a chance to knock the Blackhawks out of the playoffs.
Andrew Corns – I love it! I know there is a certain portion of the hockey fanbase that believes the plan was carefully calculated just to include large marketplaces like New York, Montreal, and Chicago, but honestly, who cares? Even if that was the case, is that bad for hockey that more markets and fanbases will be interested? The answer should be a resounding no. Hockey is rarely as relevant in the larger sports landscape than it will be this year and that’s a good thing for a hockey fan like me.
Are the Blues set up to make a serious run at winning a second consecutive title?
Sean Jeffries – As much as any other team, more so I think, because of the idea they could repeat.
Greg Bussmann – Yes, they are as deep as anyone and they proved last year they know how to win and can play together as a team
Dan Suchanek – in my eyes, they are still the team to beat. Up and down the lineup, they can compete with the best of them. The only question mark is goaltending, as it always tends to be. If the goaltending holds up, this is a beast of a team.
Stuart Hultgren – NHL playoffs are the most unpredictable in the best of times and the pandemic will just make it more unpredictable. I think the Blues have a good chance with the team they have, but if the guys spent their pandemic “break” losing fitness, then who knows how they will perform?
Andrew Corns – Absolutely. They have the best one-two goalie combo in the league along with fantastic first-line talent and incredible depth. Hockey playoffs are regularly filled with parity so there are no sure things, but I can guarantee you that if the Blues lose, it won’t be an easy task for any team.
Which Blues player will be most important once play resumes?
Sean Jeffries – Jordan Binnington. Can he return to form? Also, Vladimir Tarasenko. Will he be 100%?
Greg Bussmann – Vladimir Tarasenko. If that guy can pump in the goals consistently, it makes the rest of the team around him that much better.
Dan Suchanek – Once again, I’m looking at the Goaltending tandem of Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen. If neither performs well, this season will end quicker than expected.
Stuart Hultgren – Jordan Binnington (“Binny” to me) will be really important as goalies usually are in the playoffs. He stood on his head last year. Besides Binnington, Ryan O’Reilly’s leadership and role as a top-line center will make him the most important cog in Berube’s “next man up” philosophy.
Andrew Corns – Jordan Binnington. There are several players that make sense as answers to this question. Possibly top-scoring forward, Vladimir Tarasenko. He’s coming back from injury though, so I don’t think it’s fair to put too many expectations on his shoulders. Then you have Alexander Pietrangelo. He’s the Captain and potentially in his last season as a St. Louis Blues player. He’s already been the first Blues Captain to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup so he’s off the hook in my book. That leaves the man between the posts, goaltender Jordan Binnington. Binnington had a magical run last season and was a key figure in the Blues winning their first title. The goaltender in hockey is also one of the two or three most important positions in all of sports and it’s often said that a hot goaltender can get you through a series or two on his own with key saves. Binnington has been anointed as the #1 goalie long-term for the Blues and has already gotten a pay increase in the last year. This is his chance to prove that he’s the guy you can build your franchise around in net or show that last season was a slight fluke and he’s just an average or slightly above average goalie that went on a magical run last season.
Which Qualifying Round matchup do you find most intriguing?
Sean Jeffries – Montreal Canadiens v. Pittsburgh Penguins. I think Montreal has a very real shot at winning that series.
Greg Bussmann – Edmonton Oilers v. Chicago Blackhawks. Hub city host, that is maybe not quite ready to make a deep playoff run gets a potential layup to start against an under five hundred team that wouldn’t have made the playoffs in a so-called normal year.
Dan Suchanek – Edmonton Oilers v. Chicago Blackhawks. Edmonton needs to prove they belong in the top-tier again and this is a good time for them to showcase it.
Stuart Hultgren – Montreal Canadiens v. Pittsburgh Penguins. I don’t know if it is the mystique of the Canadiens, but I always enjoy watching them in the playoffs. Win or lose, they seem to have good series.
Andrew Corns – There are several noteworthy matchups, but I’m going to go with the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames in the Western Conference. This is an absolute blood rivalry between two evenly matched teams who are built for a real run at the Stanley Cup. I expect a feisty series with plenty of intensity that should set a strong and physical tone for the entire playoffs.
Who do you hope ends up with that #1 overall draft pick after they lose in the Qualifying Round?
Sean Jeffries – The Columbus Blue Jackets.
Greg Bussmann – Montreal Canadiens. It would be good to see them good again, and also to not have another young superstar in the Blues’ Western Conference.
Dan Suchanek – To be honest, if Edmonton rolls out a stinker in the first round and loses, I’d like them to get the pick. If not, my other choice would be the New York Rangers. Alexis Lafreniere would fit in very well there.
Stuart Hultgren – Anyone but Chicago specifically and an Eastern Conference team broadly. Though it would be neat to see a French-Canadian superstar in Montreal.
Andrew Corns – Is it okay that my answer is just anyone, but the Blackhawks? I don’t know if I could handle them unexpectedly landing the #1 overall pick and getting a young star to build their franchise around while still having the veteran leadership of Toews, Kane, and Co. Realistically, I anticipate the Montreal Canadiens will lose to the heavily favored Penguins and seeing this historically dominant franchise get the Quebec born Alexis Lafreniere (the consensus top-rated player) would be a fairytale story.
What team outside of the Blues are you most interested in watching?
Sean Jeffries – Both the New York teams (Islanders & Rangers).
Greg Bussmann – I’ll throw out a couple: the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Dan Suchanek– I’m torn between two. The Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers. I would love to see a team like the Golden Knights who are fresh to the league win it all. They also have former Blues player, Ryan Reaves. With the talent the Oilers have, they will win in the next 3 or 4 years so why not make it this year? It will also quiet all the Connor McDavid haters.
Stuart Hultgren – The Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, and Colorado Avalanche should be fun. A player I want to watch more is Adam Fox in New York. He’s had a heck of a season and I haven’t seen too much about him.
Andrew Corns – I’m going to go with the Edmonton Oilers. They’ve got hockey’s greatest current talent in Connor McDavid and also the likely Hart Trophy winner (MVP), Leon Draisaitl. This team is young and inexperienced which may just work out in their favor in this year’s format. If this fast skating team gets hot and their goaltending is slightly above average, they could make a very deep run in their quest for glory.
Who is your favorite to win the Eastern Conference and make the Finals?
Sean Jeffries – The Tampa Bay Lightning.
Greg Bussmann – The Boston Bruins again.
Dan Suchanek – I flip-flop almost every day. Today, I’m leaning towards the Carolina Hurricanes. That might be wishful thinking though and it’ll probably be the Boston Bruins.
Stuart Hultgren – I’ll say my dark horse in the Eastern Conference is the Carolina Hurricanes. They will be without Brett Pesce, but they still have a deep defensive core. Edmundson, Hamilton, Slavin, and Fleury can be really good. The Boston Bruins should have the best odds to come out of the East though.
Andrew Corns – Tampa Bay Lightning. The Boston Bruins were the top team in the entire league when play stopped, but they’re one of the oldest teams which I think will work against them. Those older legs could be harder to get warmed up and if they don’t play well in the Round Robin stage, they could get a tougher than expected matchup in the playoffs and be primed for an early upset. I had a close eye on the Lightning during the regular season and while they weren’t on pace to match their record-setting previous season’s points total, they actually looked to have better overall balance and are deep from top to bottom. There’s less pressure on them to win this season and I see that working in their favor.
Who is your favorite to win the Western Conference and make the Finals?
Sean Jeffries – The St. Louis Blues.
Greg Bussmann – The St. Louis Blues again.
Dan Suchanek – The St. Louis Blues. Again, I flip-flop on this but ultimately, I bleed blue and have to stay true to them.
Stuart Hultgren – I really like the Colorado Avalanche’s chances. They benefitted a lot from the break with Mackinnon, Makar, and Burakovsky having time to heal from their injuries. The St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers should be set to do well also.
Andrew Corns – St. Louis Blues. This isn’t a huge stretch given the Blues have the best record in the Western Conference currently. The reason I see them as the favorite to come out of the West is the way their style of play will be helped by the long break in play. The Blues’ style features heavy-hitting and all four forward lines getting close to equal minutes. This physical style can be hard to maintain over the course of a full season and into the playoffs so the break should have allowed the Blues to get healthy and be able to bring that intensity from the first whistle. They will also have Vladimir Tarasenko healthy and ready to go which will be an unexpected boost since the team was preparing to play the playoffs without him potentially.
Prediction Time: Which two teams make the Finals and who wins the Stanley Cup?
Sean Jeffries – St. Louis Blues v. Tampa Bay Lightning – Blues repeat! That said, I don’t think the league finishes. I think it gets called due to too many positive tests.
Greg Bussmann – I predict a re-run of last year, with the same result, except we’ll (The St. Louis Blues, that is) only need 6 games to win it this year.
Dan Suchanek – St. Louis Blues v. Carolina Hurricanes (or realistically the Boston Bruins). Get that parade ready once it’s safe because the Stanley Cup is marching through downtown St. Louis for a second consecutive year.
Stuart Hultgren – Homer pick, but I’ll say the St. Louis Blues vs. the Boston Bruins for a rematch. The first NHL finals rematch since the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. Blues to win in six games.
Andrew Corns – St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning with the Blues winning a 2nd consecutive Stanley Cup in a hard-fought six-game series. You might call this a “homer” pick since the Blues are the team, I have supported my whole life, but it’s also the smart pick when you think about it. They have the experience from last year’s Cup-winning run, they still look hungry to win more with the way they played in the regular season and I think they’re the deepest and most well balanced team in the entire league. If this is the Stanley Cup Finals matchup we get, it will also be highly entertaining seeing hometown legend, Pat Maroon, battling his former team and attempting to win a second consecutive Cup of his own as a Lightning player.
On a separate note, the new expansion team in Seattle officially has a name, the Kraken! What are your thoughts on the name, logo and colors?
Sean Jeffries – I like it all from what I’ve seen. The jerseys are a little boring, but maybe they’re simple & understated. The colors are great though.
Greg Bussmann – I like everything about it. The only thing missing is naming the arena, The Krak House.
Dan Suchanek – I absolutely like the name and colors. The jersey and log are great, too. I’d love to see what the whole kit looks like together to see what they do with the socks. Until then, I like it.
Stuart Hultgren – I’m neutral on the name. I think the branding is good, but the shaded parts of the logo/jersey are weird to me for some reason. I feel about the same as I did when Vegas announced they’d be the Golden Knights.
Andrew Corns – This was long rumored to be the name, but I didn’t think they’d actually go in this direction. It’s certainly unique and has people talking, but it seems a little silly for my taste. It reminds me of the Toronto Raptors’ basketball team where the name and city don’t necessarily make that much sense. At least it’s not offensive to anyone the way the previous Washington Football Team’s name was. The jersey and logo are admittedly quite cool. Now that they’ve taken this outlandish name, they might as well go wild and fully embrace the madness!
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