It’s been almost 13 months since Las Vegas experienced playoff heartbreak, and most Golden Knights fans still haven’t recovered from the nightmare in San Jose. But let’s be honest, they’d risk experiencing heartbreak again to bring hockey back at this point.
The fate of the 2019-20 NHL season has been unknown since the league “paused” in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Momentum has recently ramped up for a return to play this season, however, with details still being worked out.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association released a joint statement in late April that expressed optimism about moving into “Phase 2” of a transition back to hockey. (Phase 1 was a self-quarantine extended three times.) The league has indicated that players will return to their home cities and practice facilities at “some point in the mid-to-later portion of May.”
Some form of on-ice practices and training camp would follow before games resumed. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he could delay the start of the 2020-21 season to as late as December. That wiggle room could give the NHL until October to wrap up the current season, with ample options on how to do so.
The good news for Vegas fans? The Golden Knights appear to be among a handful of teams that won’t be adversely affected regardless of how the league proceeds. There’s no playoff system the league could contrive that would put Vegas at an obvious disadvantage.
If the NHL opts to complete a portion or all of the regular season, which has not been ruled out according to multiple reports, Vegas is in good position. At 39-24-8 and 86 points through 71 games, the Golden Knights haven’t technically clinched a playoff spot in the traditional 82-game setup, but they’re sitting atop the Pacific Division, and analytical models unanimously gave them a better than 99%chance of reaching the playoffs before the postponement. If the NHL skips directly to its usual 16-team playoff, Vegas would be a No. 1 seed.
That’s no longer seen as the most likely scenario, however. The NHL is reportedly more seriously considering an expanded, 24-team playoff bracket. That might seem counterintuitive: Why add more teams and expand the playoffs on a delayed schedule?
Blame the Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets, or the Nashville Predators and New York Islanders, depending on how you look at it. The Jets and Blue Jackets are both currently in the playoffs by total points, but they’ve played more games than the Predators and Islanders, two teams that would be in by points percentage.
With the uneven schedules, points percentage appears to be a fairer way to determine who gets in, but the Jets and Blue Jackets are unlikely to agree. Both teams surely believe they would have a shot of reaching the playoffs if the season restarted, and they aren’t alone.
A 24-team format would include all the franchises that had a realistic shot at the playoffs, without going through the trouble of finishing the regular season. All the bubble teams would have a de facto play-in round, while the top eight teams in the league would be rewarded with byes.
As Pacific Division champions, the Golden Knights would have a bye. The NHL has multiple options for seeding, but Vegas would most likely host the winner of a series between Nashville and Arizona. In theory, that would make the Golden Knights a rested squad against either a Predators or Coyotes team coming off a series win. On the flip side, Nashville or Arizona would be riding the momentum of victory, while Vegas could be rusty after watching the first round without game action to stay ready.
Statistically, a bye is a major advantage, but anecdotally, many players disagree. There’s value in playing games, the argument goes, rather than sitting around waiting. The detriment of rink rust might not outweigh the benefit of a fatigued opponent.
That’s why the Golden Knights might ultimately prefer the standard 16-team format. They’d face either the Predators, if the league used points percentage, or the Jets, if it used total points, in the event the NHL went directly into its normal playoffs.
That seems like the easiest choice. Some teams will be left out, but teams get left out every year. No solution will keep everyone happy.
A few Golden Knights have mentioned that they’d like some regular-season games to regain their legs before springing into high-stakes contests that matter. That’s their ideal scenario, but ideal has gone out the window with COVID-19 shutting down the world. Vegas will adapt to whatever the league decides.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.