The biggest winners and losers of the NHL's 24-team playoff format announcement
On Tuesday, just before 5 p.m. ET, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the NHL will return with a 24-team “return-to-play” playoff format, if and when it’s deemed safe to return. This marked the first time in his 27-year tenure that something he said wasn’t met with a chorus of boos.
More importantly, it marked the day that pro sports may have officially begun a collective comeback. Sure, golf has already returned in many ways and is set to return for real in a few weeks, but the NHL is the first of the four major pro sports leagues to announce a return (the NFL doesn’t really count for this since it may start on time anyway, but whatever).
The announcement is cause for mass celebration among hockey fans, but, as is tradition, there are still complaints. It should go without saying that whining over whether or not this format is fair for your favorite team's Stanley Cup chances while there’s a pandemic going on seems very silly, but it also makes things seem somewhat normal again. And, to be fair, there are legitimate complaints from certain fanbases.
But sometimes life ain’t fair. A few teams and their fans are going to have to suck it up and make the most of this thing. And a few others are jumping for joy as they now have a shot at the Cup that they didn’t have when the season paused. Here are the five biggest winners and five biggest losers of the 24-team playoff format.
The Biggest Winners
5) Dallas Stars
The Stars aren’t the biggest winner of the format since they were already going to make the playoffs, but we could still make the argument. Had the NHL decided to return with its normal playoff format with the standings how they currently look, the Stars would have had to face the red-hot (well, they were red hot back in March) Colorado Avalanche in the first round, and Colorado owned the home-ice advantage. Under the 24-team format, Dallas gets a bye and then gets to face one of the play-in teams. Talk about puck luck.
4) Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes still had a legitimate shot to make the playoffs before the pandemic brought everything to a halt, but now they don’t even have to worry about it. Even if some may not view this play-in round as the actual playoffs, Arizona can still say it’s the franchise’s first postseason appearance since the 2011-’12 season. And there’ are plenty of reasons to like their chances in this format (Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall among them).
3) Chicago Blackhawks
Before the season paused, the Blackhawks were six points out of a Wild Card spot with 12 games remaining. Not insurmountable ground to make up, but still an uphill climb. Instead, they avoid a third straight season of not making the playoffs and sneak in as a 12-seed, setting up a five-game, play-in series with the Edmonton Oilers. The Blackhawks’ plan is to retool rather than to completely rebuild, so this isn't supposed to be the team’s “last dance” (wink wink). But who knows what the future holds anymore. This could very well be the last real shot for the franchise’s core of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford to make one more Cup run together, which has to be a thrilling prospect for the fanbase. I’d be terrified of this veteran squad in a short series, especially against a team that has made the playoffs once since 2006.
2) Montreal Canadiens
The Habs had absolutely no business being anywhere near the playoffs prior to the pandemic. But now, just like the Blackhawks, they are avoiding a three-year playoff drought and slipping through the backdoor as a 12-seed with one of the best goaltenders in the sport in Carey Price. As we know, a hot goaltender can be all a team needs to make a magical Cup run. He’ll need to be at the top of his game, though, as the Canadiens will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round.
1) New York Rangers
Unlike Montreal, New York was very much in the playoff hunt, sitting just two points out of a Wild Card spot. Not only do the Rangers not have to deal with the fight to the finish, they get to face the Carolina Hurricanes, a team they went 4-0 against in the regular season. Perhaps the biggest bonus of all will be the return of a healthy Chris Kreider, who went down with a broken foot in February, as well as the return of young goaltender Igor Shestyorkin and winger Pavel Buchnevich, who were in a car accident together in late February. There’s also some very insider-y draft benefits for the Rangers, but that discussion is still far too complicated to have right now. Point is: the NYR have a chance to win the Cup and still be set up very nicely for the draft. Solid spot to be in (writes the homer).
(Other big winners: Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, Minnesota)
The Biggest Losers
5) Tampa Bay Lightning
As a team that has come so close to winning the Stanley Cup in recent years, the Lightning know better than anyone that they need to capitalize while their window is still open. The Bolts were 11 points clear of the underachieving Maple Leafs, who they would likely have disposed of in the opening round. Now they’ll get a team fresh off a play-in series victory that will be looking to keep the momentum rolling. It’s a tough break for franchise that’s running out of chances to raise the Cup once more.
4) Boston Bruins
As the NHL’s top team, the Bruins were set to have home ice throughout the playoffs. With a record of 22-4-9 at home, Bruins fans must have been salivating over another Stanley Cup run with the majority of games at the TD Garden. Having a bye is nice, but the Bruins are now being thrown into what is essentially a crapshoot without the home-ice advantage they earned. You honestly hate to see it happen to such a lovable sports city.
3) Florida Panthers
Florida was on the outside looking in, but they didn’t have much ground to make up to catch Toronto, the team ahead of them in the Atlantic. Had they done that, they would have bypassed the two Wild Cards entirely and grabbed one of the 3 seeds in the Eastern Conference. While the format does put them in the postseason, they could have gotten it done on their own, though it would have put them against the Lightning. They’ll get the Islanders in the play-in round instead.
2) Carolina Hurricanes
As mentioned above, the Canes have to face the Rangers in the play-in round, a team they’ve struggled mightily against this season. It seems as Carolina is well aware of that fact, as they were one of two teams that voted against the format. “For where we were and where we thought we could get to, it hurts our odds,” explained Jordan Martinook, Carolina’s player rep for the 31-player vote. He certainly has a point, but it’s a rough look when you’re one of the two out of 31 who tried to make it.
1) Edmonton Oilers
Just three points behind Las Vegas when the season stopped, the Oilers still had a chance to grab one of the top two seeds in the West. Worst case, they’d have home ice against the rival Calgary Flames. Despite having one more point than the Stars, the Stars grabbed one of the four byes because they played two less games, so they had a better points percentage. That meant the Oilers would be relegated to the play-in round, where they’ll face the Chicago Blackhawks, an experienced team that, as we explained above, will be out for blood.
(Other big losers: Hockey fans who didn't get an epic Calgary-Edmonton first-round series)