There are plenty of details left to hammer out, but the NHL is aiming for a return this summer and the Vancouver Canucks are going to be part of it.
Earlier in the week, Gary Bettman announced that the league and the NHLPA had agreed on a 24-team playoff format with the top four teams in each conference getting a bye while 16 teams taking part in play-in series.
Before the league was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canucks were a bubble team, sitting in a tie with the Nashville Predators for the final wild card seed in the Western Conference. There was a tight six-point gap separating the Canucks and five other teams for the final few playoff positions.
Had the season gone on as normal, the struggling, injury-riddled Canucks had a difficult fight to reach the playoffs and it’s anybody’s guess as to what would have happened. Now, rather than duking it out in that situation for a spot in the final few weeks of the season, the Canucks will face the Minnesota Wild in a five-game playoff series to determine if they move on to the actual playoffs.
If the Canucks beat the Wild, they’ll face the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. That could be any of St. Louis. Vegas, Colorado, or Dallas. Those four teams will be taking part in a round-robin during the play-in series to determine seeding.
If the Canucks lose to the Wild, they’ll be put into the draft lottery. This would also mean that they would keep their first-round pick in 2020. The pick, of course, was dealt to Tampa Bay as part of the J.T. Miller deal last June and has since been traded to New Jersey. The pick has a condition on it that stipulates that the Canucks will only give it away if they make the playoffs. If they miss, they keep it, and Tampa Bay (now New Jersey) will get their 2021 first-round pick no matter what.
Vancouver could still win the draft lottery and end up with a top pick at the draft come fall. The two-stage lottery process is a bit confusing this year. The seven teams that won’t be returning to action will be in the first stage along with eight placeholders that represent the eight teams who will be knocked out of the play-in round. If any of the top three draft slots are awarded to the eight placeholder team, there will be a second stage to the draft lottery that includes the teams who lost their play-in series.
So, whether you’re on Team Tank or Team Win, you have something to cheer for. If you want Vancouver to get a top pick this year, you can hope the Wild win the series because the Canucks could then be in a position to get a Top-3 pick. If you want a playoff run, well, then you can simply cheer for the Canucks to beat the Wild.
A major boon for the Canucks in this format is that it’s given them time to recover from the injuries that they were dealing with. As I said earlier, Vancouver was limping into a challenging, pivotal stretch in their schedule at the time of the pause, but now, they’ll be able to face the Wild healthy and rested.
Most importantly, Jacob Markstrom has been given plenty of time to rest after undergoing a procedure on his knee. Markstrom, who had clearly been the Canucks’ MVP this season, played his last game on Feb. 22.
The Canucks could also get Micheal Ferland and Josh Leivo back in the lineup for their play-in series, though neither player’s status is guaranteed. Both players were expected to miss the remainder of the season, so getting them back would be a nice boost to the team’s depth.
Whatever happens, this should be a positive learning experience for the Canucks, who haven’t been in the playoffs since 2015. Key members of Vancouver’s young core like Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Brock Boeser have never seen competitive late-season hockey, so, while this very different than normal, it’ll offer them some experience.
“Like we’ve been saying the last couple of years, we want them to play meaningful games down the stretch when the hockey matters,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told reporters after the NHL announced Tuesday its ambitious 24-team playoff tournament. “The intensity and the focus, they’re going to see what it’s like now to play with that intensity. I think it’s great for our whole organization.”
“For sure, it’s huge,” veteran Canuck Brandon Sutter told Sportsnet. “You don’t really quite realize what the intensity is like and… just how much fun the playoffs are. You’ve got to learn pretty quick how to raise your expectations for how you play out there. It’s just a fun time. For our young guys to get a little taste of that would be awesome.”
But there are other complications for the Canucks. For example, Bo Horvat and his wife Holly are expecting the birth of their first child in July.
“I’ve been thinking about that pretty much every day since there could be a possibility of return to play,” Horvat told Sportsnet. “It’s definitely not easy… but I’m not the only one in this kind of situation. There’s lots of guys around the league that are in different situations, whether it’s having babies or being away from families (or having) people in their families have different problems. Everybody’s got things to worry about.”
While Horvat, who was the youngest member of the Canucks back in 2015 when they played the Flames in a wild first-round tilt, surely wants to be a part of the team’s playoff run, the idea of being locked away in quarantine during the birth of his first child would be terrifying.
One final note, according to Jim Benning, the Canucks are considering having their training camp in the United States rather than in Canada. The team has 12 players across the United States and Europe who would have to do a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Canada. Having training camp in the United States, where restrictions are looser, would allow the Canucks to get around this.
“It’s a big concern,” Benning told TSN. “We worry about it because that’s 14 days before we’re going to start a gruelling training camp and get into playing playoff-style games. Basically we’re telling our players that they’ve gotta sit around their homes or apartments and they can’t do the type of training that they need.
“I know that government officials are looking at it and we don’t like it, but we understand that we need to do what’s right for everybody involved and for the safety of people … that’s going to trump everything else.”