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A one-game Stanley Cup final? Playoffs for everyone? Here’s what the post-coronavirus NHL might look like

Let’s remain optimistic. Let’s hope for the best.

Let’s say as few people as possible get sick from the coronavirus and that pausing the NHL season does its part. Everyone chips in — from owners and general managers to players and coaches, ticket takers, popcorn sellers, media and fans.

And in, say, a month from now, the NHL can resume its schedule.

That’s what commissioner Gary Bettman is hoping, though he has no specific timetable.

“When we come back — and I believe we will at some point, because I’m an optimist — it’ll be when it’s appropriate and when it’s safe,” Bettman told Sportsnet 590 The FAN on Friday.

The league has set up a task force to figure out how things will look if and when play resumes.

“We are exploring every contingency,” said Bettman. “We’re looking out in the calendar to see (the latest we can play) and then backing it up, and what are our options … We’re doing all sorts of modelling — whether it’s completing the existing regular season as is, and then a full playoffs, or whether or not based on time constraints we’re going to have to make adjustments and do something different, novel, creative.”

It’s like a puzzle.

“You’ve got to fit the pieces together,” he said. “Although the interesting part of this puzzle is, you don’t know exactly what it’s gonna look like when you’re done.”

For now, players have been told to stay home. The NHL is working on contingency plans. Here’s what things might look like when the season resumes.

Best case

A month has passed and the NHL simply picks up where it left off — maybe with empty stands, maybe not. The players would probably reconvene on April 6 for two or three days to tune up for a restart on Thurs. April 9. The hockey wouldn’t necessarily be great, and the final part of the schedule could feel a bit like pre-season games with a playoff race edge. It would be different.

  • Playoffs: Everything would be a month later, still with four best-of-seven rounds. The last day possible for the Stanley Cup final was supposed to be June 13. This would make it more like July 11. That would push back everything else — awards night, the NHL draft and free agency — and might even delay the start of next season.
  • Integrity: As good as it gets. More teams would be at full strength, with players who are currently injured having time to heal.

Not bad

The timing is tight, so the NHL decides to head straight to the playoffs when play resumes. To assuage owners of teams with a real mathematical chance of making the post-season based on games in hand, the league opts for play-ins. That pits:

  • The Maple Leafs against the Florida Panthers (just three points apart) for third place in the Atlantic Division.
  • The New York Islanders vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (one-point gap) for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.
  • The Nashville Predators against the Vancouver Canucks (tied) for one Western wild card.
  • The Winnipeg Jets vs. the Minnesota Wild (three points apart) for the other Western wild-card spot.

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Make the play-ins best-of-three series, and shorten the first-round matchups to best-of-five.

  • Integrity: Pretty good. In theory, it might take 15 wins (instead of 16) to capture the Stanley Cup. If a play-in team goes all the way, though, it would take 17. It would also let the NHL try out the play-in format for future seasons. With the league heading to 32 teams, there will be calls for more post-season spots. The play-in format is an easy way to go to 20 from 16.

OK, but …

The timing is too tight, and the NHL determines that rinks either won’t be available or won’t be playable in the summertime heat, so it tries to get the playoffs all in by the end of June. The remaining schedule is trashed. No play-ins. The league sets matchups based on points percentage to account for games in hand.

In the East, this helps the Islanders (80 points in 68 games, 58.8 points percentage) pass Columbus (81 points, 70 games, 57.9). Blue Jackets fans will be upset, especially when they see the Leafs, with a similar record, holding down third place in the Atlantic to qualify.

In the West, the Winnipeg Jets (80 points, 71 games, 56.3), currently the first wild card, would fall out of a playoff spot. Nashville and Vancouver (both 78 points, 69 games, 56.5) would leapfrog them.

The first round would become a best-of-five — maybe the second round, too.

  • Integrity: Not the greatest, but games would be played and a champion crowned.

A little different

Start the post-season with best-of-three play-in series. Play the next three rounds at best-of-sevens to determine the conference champions. Then pit the best of the East and West in a one-game Stanley Cup final at a predetermined site. Say Madison Square Garden — an Original Six palace, easy for many fans to get to, and a way for the league to promote travel (presuming it’s safe by then). It would be appointment viewing: one game, winner take all.

  • Integrity: It would take 13 or 15 wins (if it’s a play-in team) to capture the Cup, so not bad. It would draw attention to the league. The innovative start and finish would give the league a look at a format that might work for the future.

Don’t even think about it

The playoffs start with all 31 teams in some weird round-robin format that gives even the Detroit Red Wings a chance. Ugh. That would be only slightly better than no hockey. Also a non-starter: Anything that requires fewer than 12 wins to win the Cup.

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