As always, in the end it'll be about the money.

Not the sanctity of the game, not the safety of the players and teams, and certainly not for the fans.

The National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association are in the process of hammering out a 24-team 'Return To Play' playoff format. A myriad of other safety and logistical concerns in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic nonwithstanding, this would transpire because of one thing: the money.

By including teams in major markets such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers postseason entry under this format — squads that were not among the top eight in their respective conferences 70-odd games into the season — would be a boon to the NHL in terms of eyeballs watching from their television sets.

The owners will no doubt miss having fans in the stands and, more importantly, the wallets they bring with them to playoff tilts. But that'll be somewhat offset by hungry TV networks on both sides of the border frothing to provide live televised games to a sports-starved audience ... in the spectacular two-month grind that is Stanley Cup playoffs.

So the Boston Bruins, who shot out of the starting game like Secretariat at the '73 Belmont Stakes and maintained their first place hold on the league for most of the regular season, racking up 100 points and an 8-point lead over their closest Atlantic Division rival in Tampa Bay, could conceivably be knocked out of the postseason by a club that sat 12th out of 15 Eastern Conference organizations when the season was put on hold.

That's crazy. 

Phil Stacey column: Proposed 24-team NHL playoffs rewards the mediocre, hurts Bruins 

David Pastrnak and the Boston Bruins should remain the top seed if and when the NHL playoffs can begin this summer, while goalie Carey Price, Jonathan Drouin (92) and the Montreal Canadiens don't belong anywhere near the posteason. AP photo/Charles Krupa

So is the fact that the proposal has the top four teams in each conference playing each other over three games to recalibrate the playoff seeding. I understand the need for all teams to take part in competitive games following a 2-plus month layoff and subsequent 3-or-4 week "training camp", but this only hurts the top teams. 

The Bruins would have dates against Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia. Say they drop all three games and are now dropped to the No. 4 seed for the 16-team traditional Stanley Cup format. That likely means a first round series with Pittsburgh. Not much of a reward for a 100-point regular season, is it?

Even if the Bruins remained the No. 1 seed, they could wind up taking on the Maple Leafs in the first round for the third straight season — but with all of the games played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, since it's one of the favorites to be a possible landing spot as a 'hub' for the playoffs.

More than any other playoffs in the Big 4, hockey's postseason is filled with upsets and scenarios you never saw coming. But this current format takes that lightning-in-a-bottle scenario to a possible extreme.   

Montreal, who had a grand total of 19 regulation victories this season and whose odds of making the playoffs when the campaign paused were about as likely as snow falling in July, would now, under this proposed format, take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-5 'play-in' series to earn a berth in the traditional 16-team playoffs. The Habs would be big underdogs, but could you imagine if they pulled a Blue Jackets-over-Tampa Bay type upset? 

The Blackhawks, who like their Original 6 brethren from Quebec sat 12th in their (Western) Conference, would meet fifth-seeded Edmonton. If you're a hockey fan watching the playoffs, who would you rather see advance: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and a young, exciting Oilers' squad, or a past-their-prime Chicago team?

But in a made-for-TV format, as these playoffs will no doubt be should they get off the ground, that doesn't matter. The Blackhawks and Rangers' markets will mean great numbers for NBC; same with Montreal up in Canada. 

Would folks be lauding this process if the two 12th place teams in each conference were, say, Ottawa and Anaheim? 

And speaking of which, why shouldn't the playoffs be re-seeded once the 16 teams have been determined? Why should the top seed have to play either the eighth or ninth seed instead of, say, the 11th seed that upset the sixth seed in the play-in round?

There's so much that still has to be settled: which states and provinces will allow practices to begin, how will players be able to see their families, how quarantined they'll be, what the protocol would be if, God forbid, a player or players contracts COVID-19. All serious, real life questions that need to be addressed before the first playoff puck is dropped.

But it sounds as though the infrastructure of such a return to playoff hockey is being put in place by both sides.

It's commendable, but an ultimately flawed concept.


Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins and pro hockey for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at and follow him @PhilStacey_SN


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