We are now in Week 11 of the NHL pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I’m starting to lose count of the weeks and days. However, there is some good news. Earlier this week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman laid out the basic format details of the league’s return-to-play plan. One day earlier, the league issued a 22-page memo that spelled out the parameters for Phase 2 (small-group workouts) of the return plan.
No dates have been decided upon yet. Generically, we know that Phase 2 will not start until early June. Phase 3 (training camps) are targeted for around July 10. That would push Phase (resumption of games) to the end of July or early August. It will still be several more weeks until the two “hub” cities for games will be selected. A decision must also be made on whether the first and second round of the playoffs will be conducted in a best-of-five or best-of-seven format.
While the rest of the process is being hammered out, one thing has jumped out at me as a former player who played a decade in the NHL, came close a few times to winning the Stanley Cup but never played on a team that went all the way. As your career gets to its latter stages, you start to wonder which expiring contract will mark the end of your playing days rather than the opening of a free agency window.
I thought about how it would wear on me if I were playing on a non-playoff team. Unless I am mistaken, I believe that the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference standings and the bottom three teams in the Western Conference have all played their final games of the 2019-20 under the rough framework that the union and the league have agreed upon at this point.
If so, the following teams would be done for the season: the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres in the East plus San Jose Sharks, LA Kings and Anaheim Ducks in the West.
That got me thinking: With the cancelation of the American Hockey League season, NHL teams will see their rosters expand when they return. It remains to be seen how many spots are added to the active roster. Even during a “typical” postseason, the salary cap does not apply as it would during the regular season. Paychecks stop at the end of the season; the dating of the final checks this season is yet another issue the NHL and the Players Association is still working on finalizing.
Since we’re going to see an expansion of the number of teams that remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup at the outset of the league’s return and we’re expending roster limits, I think we should also expand playoff eligibility beyond the normal NHL trade deadline cutoffs. I’d love to see the NHL and NHLPA agree to extend playoff eligibility to some veteran players on non-playoff teams who are currently on expiring contracts.
Basically, it work like this: hold a “playoff dispersal” lottery for impending UFAs over the age of 30 who played this season for bottom seven teams. Based on the lottery results, the teams that will play on could select one impending UFA or simply stand pat in the one-round draft.
I’ll use Joe Thornton as a prime candidate example. The 40-year-old San Jose Sharks center has played 22 seasons in the NHL and has never played for a Stanley Cup winning team. He has said that he doesn’t plan to retire yet, although his contract expires after this season. Wouldn’t it be cool if he could take take a shot at the Cup now as a second-chance rental player rather than being in a prolonged “offseason” mode?
Other candidates: What about longtime Flyers fan favorite Wayne Simmonds, who was traded from one non-playoff team (New Jersey) to another (Buffalo)? Simmer may no longer be the player he was during his 30-goal seasons with the Flyers but the impending UFA could help a team as a short-term rental for a play-in/ playoff run.
Even someone such as Detroit defenseman Trevor Daley, Ottawa defenseman Ron Hainsey or LA forward Trevor Lewis could be playoff dispersal draft depth options with something to offer as a short-term rental beyond what your average Black Ace callup from the AHL might.
To the best of my knowledge, the idea of playoff dispersal lottery and draft is not part of any proposed return-to-play scenario. But I think:
1) It is a feature that would draw some added fan and media attention before the season resumes.
2) It’s small number of players involved: Only impending UFAs from teams that are done playing would be eligible for selection, and there would only be one round. It’s not like teams could cherry-pick stars with term left on their contracts, such as Anze Kopitar or Brent Burns.
3) A small-scale, one-round dispersal draft wouldn’t fundamentally tinker with the integrity of the playoffs, in my opinion, any more than other ideas that have been weighed, Due to the length of the stoppage at this point, we’re already looking at a “reset” mode for all of the remaining teams.
4) The odds of seeing injuries in training camps and/or early games after resumption are pretty high. Adding some more battle-tested players to the leaguewide mix would make some sense.
5) There would be some strategy involved in which player a team would select. Do you go for a bigger name, like Thornton or Simmonds, and try to incorporate him in the lineup or simply just add a vet depth rental piece in case of injury?
No doubt, my suggested lottery idea would be dubbed “the Jumbo Joe Sweepstakes” since Thornton would be the biggest name involved. So what if it is? He has been an outstanding hockey player in this league for a very, very long time and he was a name that came up this past trade deadline after putting in a lot of time on both Boston and San Jose, and coming close to a Cup a bunch of times. If eight teams that were below the playoff cutoff line in a 16-team playoff format are about to get a second chance on a playoff run this season, why not a narrow category of veteran players, too?
If you watched the Michael Jordan special over the last five weeks, you know that many many great players do not win championships but are still revered by their teammates and by their counterparts. A few great hockey vets did finally capture a championship late in their careers by going elsewhere — think Ray Bourque in his second run with the Avalanche or Kimmo Timonen in a greatly reduced role with Chicago — and we cheer for them.
Really, what’s the difference if you take that last kick at the can after being acquired via trade deadline move or via a one-time rental draft? There are no asterisks — none — on the Stanley Cup nor does a Cup winner cherish the ring any less after years and years of chasing it.
Even if the selected vet makes but a single notable play in an entire playoff run — a big clear on a penalty kill, a single timely goal, a block that prevents a tying or go-ahead goal for another team — he’s contributed. If the team goes on to win the Stanley Cup, there’s no shame in wearing your ring with pride and having your day with the Cup.
I’d even be in favor of teams above the play-in/playoff cutoff being allowed to waive an impending UFA and making him eligible for the aforementioned rental draft. However, teams horde depth for the postseason rather than deducting from it, so I don’t think clubs would take that option and potentially help a rival club. No one wants a “discarded” vet to come back and haunt them a few weeks later.
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