I Guess They’re Really Doing This?

Well, this is weird. We’re going to be talking about meaningful NHL games being played in August. Not the Olympics. Not the World Cup. Not the World Championships. Actual NHL playoff hockey.

On Friday, the NHL and the Player’s Association ratified both an extension to their collective bargaining agreement and, most importantly, the Return To Play agreement. The CBA extension is a Good Thing™ as it maintains labor peace through the 2025-26 season, and we all know that the League and the PA haven’t been great at having peace, especially since Gary Bettman has been commissioner, but anyway…that’s done. The Return To Play Agreement was also more or less an afterthought, but considering where things stood in mid-March, I was highly skeptical that they would find a way to get the Stanley Cup awarded at all, let alone by the first week of October.

Of course, none of us could have predicted that a global pandemic which has killed hundreds of thousands and infected millions more would have caused the NHL to pause and eventually cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season. Even talking about sports happening right now doesn’t quite seem reasonable given the fact that things still haven’t calmed down sufficiently (there is a second peak, and it’s been worse than the first!), but those multimillion-and-billionaire owners gotta recoup some of their losses, right? Even if it risks infecting numerous players and staff such as it has already? Despite all the positive cases we’ve already seen in the NHL and elsewhere? Are we sure this is a good idea?

Regardless of the medical misgivings, we head towards an unprecedented postseason to follow up an unprecedented break in action. For the first time since 2006, a Conference Final will be held in Edmonton, since 2002 for the same in Toronto. Not that either the Oilers or Maple Leafs will necessarily play in those games (although they could), but those two cities have been chosen as the hubs for the play-in, round-robin, and playoff games. Beyond the inherent advantage for the Oilers and Maple Leafs, every team will be playing to win the Stanley Cup in a neutral setting without fans after not having played any meaningful hockey since the second week of March. That lack of intangibles alone, at least for me, will make these playoffs that much more fascinating. Will what we see “on paper” actually bear out in the results? Or will the four-and-a-half month layoff effectively level the playing field?

Of the five major team sports in North America (including soccer), hockey is probably the third-riskiest sport for potential COVID-19 transmission. (I’m not an epidemiologist, I just play one on this blog.) Far and away the leader is football, as contact between players persistent and direct; there’s a lot of exposed skin on most players, and in particular linemen will be breathing more or less straight into each others’ faces. Basketball is second: there’s more skin exposed than with any other sport, but players aren’t as frequently in direct contact with each other. Fourth and fifth are soccer and baseball, respectively, which both feature players staying well away from each other regularly, but baseball requires very little physical interaction between opposing players, whereas soccer players often jockey physically for position.

Hockey is a very physical sport, on par with football, but the similarities end there. Hockey players are almost completely covered from head to toe, with the only exposed skin often being just the face and neck, and many players wear visors so that reduces the risk of those players as well. So, on that level, we should probably keep faith that there won’t be any widespread outbreaks, and to that point it should be noted that the numbers of positive cases haven’t been increasingly rapidly in line with what we’ve seen in the general population. That being said, we are still seeing players getting infected by COVID-19 (“multiple” players on the Montreal Canadiens were the latest to be reported), so it’ll be interesting to see if they can keep any potential infections limited to just a few players when we’ll see several teams inhabiting the same hotel.

The other interesting wrinkle that’s come up recently involves the Entry Draft. Most years, the worst teams from the regular season are usually well positioned for the top draft picks, and I’m sure fans of the Red Wings and Senators were quite optimistic about their chances of landing the #1 pick and drafting consensus first ranked left wing Alexis Lafreniere. And then the shutdown happened! And just as much as the League felt obligated to give teams just outside the playoff race a chance to make the playoffs, they also wanted to give those bubble teams a shot, albeit a small shot at 2.5%, at the first overall pick. Well, miracles do happen, and now the teams that fail to advance out of the play-in round will each be given an equal chance at winning that first overall pick.

This, of course, means that there is a chance that a team that was in playoff position when the regular season ended has a shot at the first overall pick, which is typically NHL. There’s a bunch of teams in that group that really do not need a #1 pick, such as Toronto and Edmonton who picked first in 2016 and 2015, respectively. In fact, in case we needed reminding, Edmonton has picked first overall four out of the last ten drafts (two of those picks are no longer with the Oilers: Nail Yakupov and, laughably, Taylor Hall). If there’s any justice to be had, a team that has been mired in mediocrity for years will get that pick and there will be little to complain about. But I think the League should start thinking about a new method to determining the draft order.

I plan to have previews of each conference’s qualifying rounds and seeding round-robins this week. But I just wanted to point out that Game 4 of the Penguins-Canadiens series, if necessary, is scheduled to happen on August 7. I don’t know if Sidney Crosby has ever played a hockey game on his birthday before, and I don’t know if it will ever happen again, but I think it’s a safe bet that the Penguins will win that game. We are clearly living in the strangest times we’ve ever seen, and hockey in August is par for the course in this wacky year.