- The Washington Times
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Tuesday marked an important step in sports’ journey back from coronavirus pandemic-related closures. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced several formal details for the eventual return of hockey, most notably a 24-team playoff that will be contested in two cities.

We’ve all heard the buzzwords repeated by now — “hub cities,” “round robin” — but what does the news mean for the Washington Capitals? Let’s break it down, one aspect at a time.

Who are the Capitals playing?

We know the Capitals will play a game apiece against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers to begin their personal restart. As the teams with the four best records in the Eastern Conference, they are guaranteed spots in the first official round of the playoffs — call it the Round of 16 — but to give those teams a way to play meaningful hockey, to shake off the rust and to generally make things interesting, they’ll play what the NHL is calling a Seeding Round Robin.

The teams’ performance in the round robin will determine how they are seeded, Nos. 1 through 4. The Capitals have more to gain than to lose in this, because without the round-robin they just would have been assigned the No. 3 seed.

After that, it’s impossible to tell who the Capitals might play next, for two reasons. One, we won’t know their seed until much later this summer. Two, the NHL hasn’t decided yet whether to use a structured bracket or to reseed the teams after each round based on regular-season point percentage.

Washington will draw any one of the eight teams playing in the Qualifying Round best-of-five series: the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers or Montreal Canadiens.

When are we getting started?

As exciting as it was to see playoff hockey matchups displayed on our TV screens Tuesday, the Capitals and the NHL are still a long way off from getting to that point.

The league is still in Phase 1 of its reopening, which is characterized not by reopening at all, but by players and coaches self-quarantining. Most players can’t access an ice rink to stay in shape; John Carlson recently said he hasn’t skated since the season was suspended. So Phase 2, coming likely in the first week of June, is important — players will be allowed to have voluntary workouts in groups of no more than six at a time, without coaches present.

The Capitals‘ training facility is located in Arlington, Virginia, and the state’s stay-at-home order is currently in effect until June 10, likely meaning a non-essential business like an ice rink can’t open until then. June 10 might be the earliest Capitals players who have quarantined locally can get some skating in.

Phase 3 — the start of training camps — will not begin earlier than July 1, according to the league. Bettman said Tuesday it’s “conceivable” games could begin in late July, but due to the volatile nature of the pandemic, the NHL and its medical experts aren’t setting things in stone until they feel it’s safe enough.

Where will the Capitals play?

Don’t be surprised if it’s way out west, like Las Vegas or Vancouver.

The NHL revealed the 10 team markets it was considering for two hub cities, one per conference. Only three were Eastern Conference markets — Toronto, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio. The other seven were spread out around the Western Conference — Chicago, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Vancouver.

Bettman said not to get too hung up on the East-West dynamic, but let’s reason this out. The league seems to want to avoid placing a playoff team in its home arena and city. Sure, there won’t be fans showing up to cheer them on and boo their opponents, but there are other “perceived advantages.” Most notably, there will be the temptation for players to leave the “bubble” and go to their homes, which would be both unsafe and unfair as other teams will be confined to their hotels.

Here’s the thing: Nine of the 10 hubs under consideration are home to playoff teams, the exception being Los Angeles. Mathematically, it’s quite likely that the Capitals and the Eastern Conference end up in the West — or even in a Central Time Zone city, like Chicago or Dallas — while the Western Conference teams land somewhere like Toronto or Pittsburgh. Or the Western Conference could play in Los Angeles while the Eastern Conference is sent to a different Western market.

What about regular-season stats?

Though NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told ESPN a solution had yet to be negotiated, it appears the league’s stance is that the 2019-20 regular season is over, meaning stats from the Qualifying Round and Seeding Round Robin won’t count toward regular-season totals.

So, in the least ceremonious way imaginable, Alex Ovechkin just won his ninth Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for leading the NHL in goals. He tied Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak with 48 goals, so he has to share the award for the first time.

Counting this year, the trophy has only been handed out 21 times since it was introduced in 1999, so Ovechkin has won more than 40% of all Richards ever awarded. They might have to change the name to the Alex Ovechkin Memorial Award when his playing days are through.

However, his quest for a ninth career 50-goal season was stymied by the shortened season.

Other individual milestones were also affected. Braden Holtby was one shutout away from breaking the career franchise record; he’s tied with Olaf Kolzig with 35, and as a pending free agent there’s no telling if he’ll ever play another regular-season game for Washington.

And John Carlson was on pace early in the season to become the first NHL defenseman to score 90 points since Ray Bourque in 1993-94. Carlson just needed 15 points in the Capitals‘ final 13 games, which might have been a bit of a stretch, but not if he produced at the pace he was scoring in October and November.

He still led all defensemen with 60 assists and 75 points and is a favorite for the Norris Trophy.

Does the modified draft lottery affect Washington at all?

Not really. Since the Capitals are a playoff team guaranteed to play in the Round of 16, there is no way they’ll be in the lottery, held June 26.

There are seven teams that didn’t make the postseason — Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo. They’ve been entered into the lottery (with the Senators controlling both the Sharks’ first-round pick and their own), and the teams that lose in the Qualifying Round will eventually be added to determine the top 15 picks. But it appears the 16 playoff teams will still be ordered by when they’re knocked out of the postseason.

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