NHL Playoff Plans still up in the Air

As the month of April winds down the only thing guaranteed about the upcoming 2020-21 NHL playoffs is that the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Vegas Golden Knights, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche will be participating.

As of April 28, the other 10 postseason spots were still up for grabs with the top four teams in each division eventually taking to the ice to battle it out for Lord Stanley’s precious mug. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the first two playoff rounds will see divisional matchups only, the same as the regular season.

However, once the first two sessions have been completed, fans are going to see inter-divisional clashes and this is where things could get a little tricky for Commissioner Gary Bettman and the league. Since Canada is still placed in virtual lockdown with travel restrictions, the NHL needs to come up with a suitable plan to ensure the playoffs rum as smoothly as possible.

Bettman realizes the travel situation is extremely unpredictable as new government rules could be implemented at any time in both Canada and the USA. The league dealt with it during the regular season by realigning the divisions to cut down on travel and placed all seven Canadian clubs in the same group. In theory, this should also enable the league to get through the first two playoff rounds without much disruption.

It’s no secret Canada has been sadly lacking when it comes to the pandemic and its vaccine rollout. Meanwhile, the USA currently has a much better grip on the situation with the economy opened up in many parts of the country. Restrictions in Canada could mean the first two rounds of the North Division playoffs take place in a quarantined bubble. This is something the league and players are used to as the 2019-20 postseason took place in ‘bubbles’ in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Edmonton without any problems. 

Once the winner of the Canadian North Division is crowned though, the team will have to face an American-based club in the third round (semifinals). One solution to this would be to have the winner of the North Division relocate operations to an American city for the remainder of the postseason. For example, if the Edmonton Oilers should happen to emerge from the North Division playoffs the club could then locate to the closest NHL city to their upcoming opponents to reduce travel costs.  

The Canadian government’s current seven to 14-day quarantine rules for travelers means this is a likely scenario unless these rules are relaxed by the time the first two playoff rounds are completed. But even then, it’s going to be a bit too late for the NHL to finalize its postseason plans. The playoffs are scheduled to face-off in mid-May so the league wouldn’t get the word from Canada’s politicians until some time in June.

Since 23 of the 24 American teams are now allowing a limited number of fans into their home rinks, there’s not really any need for the NHL to assign ‘hub’ cities which would host several teams’ home games. With a huge amount of revenue being lost by team owners over the past year, they’re going to want to host their own playoff games and at this moment there’s no reason they shouldn’t. Therefore, the suggestion of playing in one or two American hub cities would likely be met with loud protests by owners and fans. 

So far, Canadian teams have been allowed to travel from city to city in their own nation but numerous games in that country have been postponed during the season. These postponements have actually caused the playoffs to be pushed back about a week from their original starting date. If Canadian travel is restricted further the league may decide to play games in a bubble there but definitely not in the USA.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly will continue to negotiate with the Canadian government with each passing day. But in reality, with all of the private jets, testing, vaccinations and current safety protocols in place, NHL players pose a minimal risk to the general public and that’s why fans are back in most American rinks. But with Canada lagging so far behind, that country’s politicians seem to be wary of giving the NHL what would be viewed by many Canadians as preferential treatment. 

Bettman and the team owners are savvy businessmen and their goal is to make as much money as possible during the NHL playoffs. With travel restrictions in most of the USA being a thing of the past, it’s a good bet the league will come up with a playoff plan which enable the owners to pull in as much revenue as possible through ticket sales. Therefore, the most-likely scenario would see the Canadian winner of the North Division relocate to the USA if travel restrictions in the Great White North remain in place in June.   

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