On February 11, which seems like a year ago at this point, the Minnesota Wild traded Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In return, the Wild received forward Alex Galchenyuk, defensive prospect Calen Addison and a lottery-protected first-round pick in either the upcoming 2020 NHL draft, or in 2021. Which year the Wild get to use that pick would depend on whether or not the Penguins made the playoffs this season. If the Pens made the dance in 2020, the Wild would automatically get this year’s selection, and should Pittsburgh miss the playoffs this season, the Penguins would keep their 2020 selection and the Wild would get the 2021 first-round pick.
One month and one day later, the NHL pressed the pause button on the season due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. And with more and more suggestions and/or mandates restricting public gatherings each day, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not the 2019-20 season will see a conclusion.
With the Penguins currently sitting in third place in the Metropolitan Division and five points clear of their nearest competitor, the Carolina Hurricanes, any normal resumption of play that results in a normal, four-round, 16-team playoff means the Wild would get the Pens’ 2020 pick (like this proposed schedule via TSN). But there are rumors and speculation abound regarding how the NHL might run the playoffs, from an expanded 24-team tournament that accounts for all teams currently mathematically eligible, to a two-team, winner-take-all championship with the two teams currently leading their conferences. There’s also the very real possibility that the NHL is forced to completely pull the plug on the season.
Let’s take a look some of the possible alternatives, and what they mean for the Wild, the Penguins and the NHL draft.
The 24-team playoff
The idea of the NHL considering a playoff format that allows every team that’s currently playoff eligible was reported by Igor Eronko of Sport-Express via Twitter on March 15th:
Hearing the NHL considers 24 teams to get to the playoffs with a playout round to be played. If the season is going to be resumed, of course— Igor Eronko (@IgorEronko) March 16, 2020
Since then, news outlets have discussed a few different versions of a 24-team playoff. Some have two play-in rounds, some have just one. Some seed the teams from each conference 1-to-12, some honor the current top-three format by having the bottom nine teams in each conference battle for the wild card spots. But the most prevalent version is this one, put forth by TSN.com, among others:
This 24-team playoff has both the Wild and the Penguins in play-in series, likely bests-of-three. The seven teams that don’t make this format would likely comprise the lottery picks, and both the Wild and Penguins could end up with picks anywhere from No. 8 overall to No. 31, depending how well they do in the playoffs. Considering the Penguins currently sit 15 points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Montreal Canadians, the Pens moving to the second round is a likely scenario. The Flyers represent a much more difficult opponent, but at the time of the season pause, the Penguins did lead the series 2-1. I’ll predict that the Penguins would edge the Flyers in a seven-game series, but lose to the Bruins in the quarterfinals.
Verdict: Wild get the Penguins 2020 first-round draft selection, somewhere between picks 23-27
A four-team or two-team playoff
Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times has a great breakdown of all the potential options, depending on how long the season pause takes to resolve. In his “two-to-three month” scenario, he posits that the NHL, desperate to see someone lift the cup, would put forth a drastically reduced playoff field, perhaps with only the conference winners, the division winners, or the top two teams from each conference. In the two-team scenario, you’d have a rematch of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins. In a four-team tournament, the East would either see the Metropolitan leading Washington Capitals, or the overall No. 2 seed, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The West would similarly have two different options depending on the format, with the Vegas Golden Knights leading the Pacific, while the Colorado Avalanche are far and away the second-best team in the Western Conference.
What happens in this scenario depends on how the NHL defines a lottery team. Do all the teams that don’t make the abridged playoff then become lottery teams? That would be the only sensible thing to do should the league limit the postseason participants. In that case, the pick would be protected and moved to the next season.
Verdict: Wild get the Penguins 2021 first-round draft selection
The 2019-20 season is canceled
Should the NHL completely end the season without a champion, the league will have to decide how to determine the draft order. They could say that the teams in playoff positions at the time the season was paused are the playoff teams, and all others are in the lottery. They could decide to put all the teams into the lottery, weighted by win percentage. Or they could eschew the lottery altogether and just award draft position based on win percentage alone.
There’s also a chance that the NHL might come up with some completely new system for determining the draft order, like they did after the 2004-05 season was canceled due to the lockout. The NHL made all of the teams eligible for the lottery, and created three tiers of odds. Teams that had not had the first overall pick or earned a playoff spot in any of the prior three seasons earned three balls in the hopper. Teams that had made the playoff once in the prior three seasons or had one first-overall pick got two balls. Everyone else got one ball. Of the four teams that were awarded three-ball chances, the Pittsburgh Penguins beat out the Buffalo Sabres, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Rangers to win the first-overall pick, and a future hall-of-famer named Sidney Crosby.
In the end, there’s so much yet to be determined. Will there be some kind of resumption of the season? How many participants will take place? How many teams are put into the draft lottery? And how will the NHL handle lottery-protected picks if or when they are forced to cancel the season?
Verdict: Your guess is as good as mine