- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 21, 2020

The latest NHL return-to-play scenario being discussed would include 24 teams, but rather than start with a round-robin tournament, as was reported last weekend, the league would go straight into the playoffs and give eight teams first-round byes — including the Washington Capitals.

That doesn’t mean that Capitals players are particularly enthused by the idea.

In an interview on NBC Sports Network Thursday, Capitals defenseman John Carlson admitted he didn’t love the idea of a 24-team postseason, which is eight more than the usual selection of 16 teams.

“I think that they’re kinda jogging all their options right now and leaving the doors open for any potential scenario,” Carlson said. “I think 24 teams sounds like a lot of teams to me, if I’m being honest. But you’ve got to think about all phases of it, not just the playoffs and those games before the playoffs. How are they gonna be played out? You’ve got to make sure that there’s some level playing field in terms of intensity, and you don’t want some teams to be mailing it in when others are prepping themselves for a playoff run.”

It followed similar opinions Carlson shared in a radio interview Wednesday, when he said he hoped the league would strike the right balance between including teams that were on the fringe of making the playoffs and not bringing in too many.

“There could be potential issues if they do let too many teams into it that really don’t have any chance and tell them after a couple months’ layoff that they’ve got to be in midseason to late-season form — knowing that your season’s going to end within two or three weeks and you’re gonna have another couple months off,” Carlson said Wednesday. “I think that can be problematic.”

According to multiple reports, the league and the players’ association are looking at a format that will include the top 12 teams from each conference based on points percentage through March 12, when the season was suspended.

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences would get byes, while the No. 5 seeds would play the No. 12 seeds, No. 6 vs. No. 11 and so on in a best-of-five play-in round. After that, the playoffs would return to a best-of-seven series in each round.

The league would rank teams by points percentage rather than total points because at the time the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not all teams had played the same number of games.

The talks surrounding this format did not include the logistical obstacles of where and how many “hub cities” or “bubbles” will be needed, how often players would be tested or when the games would start.

Under this format, the Capitals would be the No. 3 seed out of the Eastern Conference, ahead of divisional rival Philadelphia and behind only Boston and Tampa Bay. They would draw either the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes — who knocked them out of the first round last year — or the No. 11 New York Rangers — with whom Washington has a long postseason history.

Last weekend, reports said that the sport was looking at a 24-team restart plan that would begin with four six-team round robin tournaments to whittle it down to a 16-team field for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Whatever ends up being the case, it will be a conclusion to a season unlike any other, not only for the NHL but for all other sports leagues that halted play when the COVID-19 pandemic became a problem in North America.

The NHL Players’ Association will get a say in the negotiations; reports said the NHLPA executive board would hold a call Thursday night to discuss format options. But ultimately, there might not be tons of wiggle room. Nicklas Backstrom told a Swedish outlet this week that the expanded playoff “will probably be the only option” NHL players have.

On Tuesday, before the latest proposal came to light, the Nashville Predators’ Matt Duchene argued against resuming the season at all, warning that whichever team wins the 2020 Stanley Cup would be unfairly dogged by an asterisk.

“You don’t want to have a ‘COVID Cup,’ and I’m worried that if we come back and try and force this thing and it’s a little gimmicky and it’s not quite right, whoever wins the Cup is going to have people try and take it away from them their whole lives,” Duchene said. “And they don’t deserve that … Our game is one of the games that has the most integrity in the world and I know our guys are going to want this to mean something if we do come back.”

“I think the integrity of our game has to be maintained,” he added.

If this format is agreed upon, the Eastern Conference playoff bracket would look like this:

First-round byes:

1. Boston Bruins (.714)

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (.657)

3. Washington Capitals (.652)

4. Philadelphia Flyers (.645)

Opening series:

5. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens, winner plays Flyers

6. Carolina Hurricanes vs. 11. New York Rangers, winner plays Capitals

7. New York Islanders vs. 10. Florida Panthers, winner plays Lightning

8. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. 9. Columbus Blue Jackets, winner plays Bruins

If you’re interested, this is what the Western bracket would look like:

First-round byes:

1. St. Louis Blues (.662)

2. Colorado Avalanche (.657)

3. Vegas Golden Knights (.606)

4. Dallas Stars (.594)

Opening series:

5. Edmonton Oilers vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks, winner plays Stars

6. Nashville Predators vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes, winner plays Golden Knights

7. Vancouver Canucks vs. 10. Minnesota Wild, winner plays Avalanche

8. Calgary Flames vs. 9. Winnipeg Jets, winner plays Blues

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