More than two months after the world came to a screeching halt due to a global pandemic, many entities (including the NHL) are trying to slowly begin a return to normal, or whatever our new normal will be when this is all said and done. Even after Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and Donald Fehr spoke yesterday there are still almost as many questions as answers. Chief among them is the overriding asterisk that there’s still no guarantee the NHL itself will be dropping the puck again in the 2019-20 season. As with almost everything in society, it’s all contingent on testing being readily available, the viability of finding host sites and the virus’s curve continuing to flatten.
What we do know, is that the NHL ‘regular season’ as it were, is over with the Devils and six other teams being in limbo till the beginning of the next regular season, whenever that is. Assuming the NHL does return, it’ll be a 24, not 16-team playoff although technically the opening round of eight play-in series won’t count as postseason, most likely to not muddy the waters even further on conditional trades – a couple of which we’re a part of – and also to get in enough total games to satisfy local TV contracts. We also know the NHL Draft lottery is going to be more convoluted with the seven already eliminated teams, and eight play-in series losers all being a part of it.
I’m not even going to bother to try to explain the double lottery format that it would take for one of the play-in losers to win the lottery, but suffice it to say since we’re one of the seven already eliminated, our odds of winning a lottery do not either improve or go down because of this format. Aside from the fact you have to do one drawing, then another to determine which play-in loser moves up in the lottery (if any does after the initial drawing), I don’t really have an issue with it – especially since I don’t care who wins the lottery to be honest, particularly after winning it twice in three seasons and still being stuck in loserville. My main concern at this point is whether we will get Vancouver and Arizona’s first-round picks this year or next year as part of playoff conditions.
Many have an issue with the fact that a team like Pittsburgh can lose a five-game first-round series and theoretically win the lottery. Sure the system isn’t perfect, but you think Penguin fans really care about a possible 3% chance of winning the lottery if they lose a playoff series? I know I’d be more focused on the late ’00’s Devils chances of losing a five-game series than on whether I could get in the lottery. To me giving them a lottery ticket is a neccesary trade off for making teams like the Penguins who were clearly going to the postseason in a normal year, play in a preliminary round instead.
I’m not always one to carry water for the league and clearly this plan isn’t perfect, but I actually think it walks a very delicate balance pretty well. Unlike the NBA where there’s a clear delination between playoff and non-playoff team, in the NHL you’d have teams complaining they missed the playoffs due to fewer number of games played, or if the NHL determined postseason berths on account of winning percentage then they’d be mocked for keeping a team with one or two more points out of the postseason.
Ideally you’d like the postseason to be ten teams instead of twelve in each conference, but then ironically it’d be the Rangers who would have gotten screwed in 11th place missing by a point while having one fewer game played than the Panthers. Clearly the NHL opted for too many over too few, especially when the 24-team plan brings in three Original Six markets who wouldn’t be part of the playoffs otherwise. As much as I would mock the ‘anything for a buck’ mentality under normal circumstances, if there’s one point in history I don’t begrudge the NHL or any other league looking at markets and making money while keeping as many teams involved as plausible…
Also what’s ironic is the Devils missed the preliminary round by only three points, with two fewer games played than the Canadiens. Not that we would have really deserved to make the postseason, and despite the way we were playing in the second half of the season I really couldn’t see us beating the better teams in the league once they got their rust out of the way. I don’t really need to do a season recap, essentially I already did one shortly after worldwide limbo started although I didn’t neccesarily see things going on to this degree for this long. Some of my takes aged well, others probably didn’t – including believing we’d still be playing a regular season only with no fans, but I really doubt anyone seriously thought in mid-March we’d still be sitting here at the end of May with the only live sports from the big four being a star-laden charity golf match, and the NFL Draft.
As the sport and society stays in limbo, so do the Devils themselves. Owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer could say – justifiably – that they can’t do their due dillegence in terms of hiring both a full-time GM and a full-time coach if they’re not allowed to talk to every possible candidate until their own seasons end. Still, it seems a bit embarassing to continue to trot out Tom Fitzgerald as such a public mouthpiece and making him and his staff work during this pause while refusing to remove the ‘interim’ from his title. You could say the same about interim coach Alain Nasreddine except that there isn’t a whole lot of coaching to be done in the offseason.
I will give the Devils credit for at least one thing in general though, they have managed to put out a lot of content – remotely – with weekly interviews of both players and staff, plus special guests like Martin Brodeur. I’ve certainly heard and seen a lot more content from the Devils than from my other sports teams, who are also on the same pause (though in the NFL’s case it’s more like a normal offseason to this point than the others). I can’t say I’ve listened to all of them but I have listened to a few, and it is interesting to hear how the players themselves are dealing with things.
Still, it’s a very dark time for a Devils hockey fan and not just because of what’s going on in the world – but even when the games do return to the Rock (with or without fans), whether it’s the fall, winter or whenever – many questions and doubts will remain about the on-ice future of the franchise, and no answers appear imminent.