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The biggest winners and losers from the NHL’s playoff format

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens would play a five-game series under the NHL's proposed 24-team postseason format. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The NHL took a big step toward completing the 2019-20 season this summer after the NHL Players’ Association executive board voted to approve a 24-team, conference-based playoff format on Monday, part of an extensive return-to-play plan that requires further approval. On Tuesday, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league was indeed ending its regular season and expanding the postseason to 24 teams, although it did not give a concrete timetable for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Under the plan, the top four seeds in each conference, as determined by their standings points percentage when the regular season was paused on March 12, would receive byes through a round of best-of-five play-in series featuring seeds 5 through 12. The format for the play-in round would be No. 5 seed vs. No. 12 (with the winner advancing to play the No. 4 seed), No. 6 vs. No. 11 (winner plays No. 3), No. 7 vs. No. 10 (winner plays No. 2) and No. 8 vs. No. 9 (winner plays No. 1). Then, the remaining 16 teams would battle for the Stanley Cup as normal. Home-ice advantage, however, would only potentially exist for a few teams, as Bettman explained the modified postseason would take place in two hub cities, one for the Eastern Conference and one for the West, that have not been determined. The sites under consideration are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.

NHL ends regular season, will open with 24-team playoff at an undetermined date

Eastern Conference
Western Conference
No. 1 Boston Bruins
No. 1 St. Louis Blues
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning
No. 1 Colorado Avalanche
No. 3 Washington Capitals
No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights
No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers
No. 4 Dallas Stars
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
No. 5. Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
No. 8 Columbus Blue Jackets vs. No. 9 Toronto Maple Leafs
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

The Montreal Canadiens benefit the most by the format change to a 24-team postseason. Their record of 31-31-9 gave them 71 standings points at the end of the regular season, fifth-most in the Atlantic division and 10 points out of a traditional playoff spot. However, they now enter the new format as a 12-seed against the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points). Based on each team’s actual win-loss record and its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage — we would expect the Canadiens to win this five-game series 24 percent of the time. The Penguins, meanwhile, had a 96 percent chance to make the playoffs under the traditional format, per Hockey Reference’s playoff probabilities report, but now those chances decline to 76 percent.

Arizona, fifth in the Pacific division (33-29-8, 74 points) benefits, too. The Coyotes were given a mere 13-percent chance to make the playoffs during an 82-game regular season yet would face the Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, 78 points) in the play-in round, giving the desert dogs a 41-percent chance at moving on after a five-game series. Vancouver’s chances drop from 70 to 59 percent.

The New York Rangers get a boost at the expense of the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were in a wild-card spot before the season was put on hold with a 79 percent chance at making the playoffs. That would drop to 58 percent chance against the Rangers in a five-game series. New York would see its playoff hopes nearly double from 22 to 42 percent. The Hurricanes, no stranger to analytics, were one of two clubs to vote against the proposed 24-team playoff format due to the possible harm it inflicted on the team.

“For where we were and where our team thought we could get to, it hurts our odds,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook said on a Zoom call with media Monday. "[This format] doesn’t really benefit the teams that are in 5, 6, 7 and 8 so it kind of hinders those teams. Then it obviously gives a lot to 9, 10, 11 and 12. It didn’t really benefit our team in any way.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning also voted against the proposal.

“I brought the format to my team. They didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn, the team’s NHLPA representative, told the Athletic. “My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”

There is some reason for concern. While we have never seen this type of playoff format before there have been instances where a team has little to play for leading up to the postseason, essentially functioning as a bye. Tampa Bay clinched the President’s Trophy in mid-March last year, essentially putting its players on cruise control for the remaining nine games of the season. The Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. The Washington Capitals clinched the President’s Trophy in late March in 2016, at the time the earliest a team has clinched home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs in 14 years. They fell to the Penguins in the second round.

No team is hurt by the proposed format more than Edmonton (37-25-9, 83 points). The Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl led the league in assists and points while his teammate and team captain, Connor McDavid, led the NHL in assists per game. As a result, Edmonton had a 93 percent chance to make the playoffs and a five percent chance to win its first Stanley Cup since 1990. Instead, the Oilers will face the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, 72 points) in the play-in round, which gives the Oilers a 63-percent chance of advancing to the field of 16. Chicago’s playoff chances soar from three to 37 percent.

The underdogs would be helped further if the first two rounds after the play-in games featured five-game series instead of the traditional seven-game format. That is still under consideration and will be determined likely by how quickly the league can safely resume play. For example, if a 40-win team faced a 30-win team in a seven-game series with home-ice advantage they would be expected to win 77 percent of the time. In a best-of-five series, we would expect the 40-win team to win 74 percent of the time with home-ice advantage. Take away the home-ice advantage and those win rates drop further to 75 and 72 percent, respectively, for the 40-win team.

There are still hurdles to overcome, such as agreeing on health and safety protocols plus financial matters surrounding an expanded playoff format, but most of the league feels this is a viable way forward, even at the expense of teams that performed better during the course of the regular season.

“Obviously these are extraordinary and unprecedented times,” Bettman said. “Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect. But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that as a practical matter, might have had a chance [at] qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused.

“This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”