Before moving forward, a point of clarity: There’s no way to make everyone happy here.
No matter the course of action the NHL takes, there will be a happy contingent, and another half — or maybe more — that think such decision making is beyond comprehension.
But all factors need to be accounted when discussing the eventual resume of the NHL’s season. We don’t know when ice hockey will exist again; the league extended its self-quarantine period to April 15, and even that is generous given the spike of COVID-19 numbers since the NHL paused its season March 12.
And when the season actually does resume, the Vegas Golden Knights will face some sort of impact no matter what.
Options on how to finish the regular season
The common denominator is teams should get at least 3-4 weeks to get acclimated back to game shape. Whatever the target date should be preceded with the equivalent to a training camp.
- Play the remaining games. If the NHL feels an authentic finish is needed, this is the way to go. A reminder: The Golden Knights have a three-point lead on the Edmonton Oilers for first place in the Pacific Division with 11 games to go. Vegas would have seven road games versus four home contests. Six of those would be against division opponents. That’s some pressurized hockey after at least a month off, but it would provide entertainment value against the Coyotes (x2), Oilers, Flames and Canucks.
- Go straight to the playoffs. Forget everything we saw, and what we would see, for the final month. Take the four weeks to get ready to play for the Stanley Cup. This, after all, is the hope for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at some point. Should the NHL move forward with this, the Golden Knights would face the Winnipeg Jets in the first round.
- More than 16 teams in the playoffs. I’m here for carnage. There have been thoughts about a 24-team field, and if you’re fond of Montreal and Chicago getting a puncher’s chance, then this is for you. The games would be orchestrated by current standings placement. This would provide more of a fair-play scheme to those in the hunt and would certainly alter the landscape of the wild card races.
What should happen?
Playing optimist is ideal. Saying that this will all end come June or July and the NHL can rev up operations soon-after would be great. Putting a target date on any resolution involving the coronavirus is premature.
Let’s say this goes into the summer, where the ice at T-Mobile Arena will be greatly tested by the unforgiving triple-digit heat that engulfs Las Vegas. One, that would be most invigorating. Two, who wouldn’t want hockey carrying into the dog days of summer?
Certain factors need to be taken into account, primarily the beginning of the 2020-21 season, how to incorporate free agency, training camp and the like — all while maintaining the hope that you could play a condensed season in 2021 to return on time for 2022, which by the way, a certain expansion team in the Pacific northwest is supposed to start then.
Wearing my imaginative commish hat, I’d throw together a combination of options two and three.
As Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said in his conference call chat last week, it would make sense to get some regular season games in for goalies.
“I would like to play some games,” Fleury said. “I think the biggest thing for a goalie is timing. Whatever you do in the summer, you can train and practice, but when you get to training camp, that’s when you see NHL shots. That’s something you’ve got to catch up on. It’d be nice to have a few to get back into it.”
If you’re going to give teams a warmup, at least two “preseason games” would suffice. After that, start Game 1 of the first round. Determining that isn’t by creating a 24-team field, though. You can afford two play-in games each. Have the games take place at neutral sites, as well, just for fun. It would look something like this, for the West:
- Winnipeg vs. Minnesota
- Nashville vs. Vancouver
And for the East:
One problem might be, what of the Florida Panthers? They’re a point behind the Rangers and would benefit from a couple of real games to get back in the chase. But if you’re trying to push the process along, two games should do it.
The Golden Knights could play Winnipeg, Vancouver or Nashville in the first round. If you’re fond of avoiding Minnesota, this would work best for you.
Should the play-in winners be tied in points, the league’s standings tiebreaker method goes into effect.
There’s one important component to factor in, no matter what option is chosen: Those injuries to Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Alex Tuch? Gone. All playoff teams would go into the postseason with a clean bill of health. Good for the league, good for the entertainment value, and good for teams who have something to prove ... like the Golden Knights.
It’s not a perfect scenario, and there might not be one. The key is how the NHL can turn this into starting 2022 on time. That’s the most important thing.
In short, hockey is missed and we need something soon.