Which teams should feel most aggrieved by NHL's return-to-play format?

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The Edmonton Oilers deserved a better fate. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Edmonton Oilers deserved a better fate. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Gary Bettman said as much.

If they wish to, each NHL team — including ones that have only the lottery to look forward to — can have something to complain about when it comes to the league’s just-approved 24-team return-to-play strategy.

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Even so, only two teams — Carolina and Tampa Bay — submitted votes against the system that will be officially enacted, hopefully, later this summer when the league decides that it is safe enough to stage competition amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teams played ball, and they deserve credit for it. That said, there are degrees to which teams should feel aggrieved by the consequences of a paused season — considering its proper context, of course.

Here are the 24 teams that will compete for the Stanley Cup, ranked by who should feel most chafed.

Major beef

It’s splitting hairs when deciding between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers for the team that’s been dealt the worst hand. These were essential locks for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and teams that could have used the remaining schedule to not just lock down home-ice advantage in the early rounds of the postseason, but to win their divisions as well.

Instead now they will have to survive two major-market teams that would have had better odds at the lottery under normal circumstances in the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively.

The expectation should be that the Penguins and Oilers survive these tests. However the margins they hold over their play-in opponents were established over months, and over a five-game series with so many unknown variables, we’re looking at something that more resembles a coin flip.

At first blush, this seems most unjust for the Oilers, who now risk losing out on such an unexpectedly positive season. They were a top-two team in the Pacific Division and had the fourth-most points in the Western Conference when the season was paused, but were passed over in favour of a third Central Division entry — the Dallas Stars — based on points percentage. Now they might miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons with Connor McDavid despite being three points out of first place in the division with 11 games to play.

That said, Pittsburgh — an experienced and legitimate Stanley Cup contender that survived a rash of injuries in the regular season — enters the play-in with the seventh-best record in the NHL, and now must beat a team with only 19 regular-season wins in 71 games to have another crack at the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era. That doesn’t sit well either.

Serious beef

The Boston Bruins are the only team in the NHL that truly separated themselves. With 100 points in 70 games, they had full control of the Atlantic Division and were well on their way to sewing up home-ice advantage all the way through.

So, with news that hub cities would be required to complete the season, we knew the Bruins would have to forfeit much of what they earned during a dominant regular season. Now it turns out they could lose out on much more than originally thought.

Despite an eight-point lead in the conference, the Bruins could slip as far down has fourth based on the results of three round-robin games versus the remaining top seeds in the East: Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia. While they will hold a tie-breaker based on their regular-season success, the Bruins could potentially face the fifth-seeded Penguins in the opening round if they stumble out of the gate.

Likewise, the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche are looking at a similar fate. Two points apart in the battle for the Central Division crown and the top seed in the Western Conference, the Blues and Avs could drop closer to the middle of the pack once the playoffs begin.

Mild beef

Take hold of a top-three seed, and you’re in. This very basic goal for most NHL teams, however, won’t carry with it the same promise this season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and either the Vancouver Canucks or Calgary Flames were likely to finish in the top three inside their division, but instead have had that opportunity essentially nullified. Individually, these aren’t egregious injustices by any means given that each team belongs to that muddy middle based on a points percentage anyway, but it certainly removes a protective and previously promised function within the normal postseason structure.

The Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, weren’t likely to secure a position in the top three of the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, but they have reason to feel hard-done by as well. From the sixth seed with a plus-29 goal differential they have drawn the New York Rangers, who have the fifth-most wins since Jan. 1 and have already beat the Hurricanes four times in the regular season.

It’s also worth throwing the Vegas Golden Knights into this section. While they will have a free pass through into the first round and could potentially wind up with the top seed in the Western Conference, this is a likely division winner that could very easily miss out on the advantages of finishing where they did.

What they deserve

With a slim chance to qualify through the division and little separating them in the wild-card chase, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets should have to play themselves into the tournament in the Western Conference, while the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders do the same in the Eastern Conference.

Among these four teams, it’s the Predators, though, who seem to have benefitted the most. Two percentage points in the standings separates them from the Jets, and yet it marks the difference between drawing 10th-seeded Minnesota Wild compared to the eighth-seeded Flames.

Low risk, high reward

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals are each deserving of their pass through into the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and they are both receiving an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise, which is to overthrow the Bruins for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

It’s also possible that they lose some ground during the round robin portion of the return-to-play format, but with three points separating the No. 2 and No. 4. seeds, it’s really nothing to complain about.

(Although the Lightning apparently did).

Lifelines

Ranked 10th in points percentage in their respective conferences, the Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers had well below a coin-clip chance to use what was left of the regular season to punch their ticket into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Drawing the Predators and Islanders respectively, the format has seen their odds demonstrably improve.

Gifts

With postseason probabilities ranging from roughly 20 percent to under one percent, there are levels to which these teams have benefitted, but the New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks will each receive opportunities it’s hard to argue they’ve earned when the play-in round begins.

For each, it’s a free roll at the postseason table. And while a few teams will surrender some capital at the draft lottery, what’s real sweet about this deal for these teams is that their inclusion in the postseason bracket will not prohibit them from winning a top-three draft selection at the lottery.

It’s close to a best of both worlds scenario as you can get.

The No. 4 seeds

While it’s nice for a few of the bottom feeders to participate in a few unexpected postseason games, the real competitive advantages in the context of the Stanley Cup belong to the No. 4 seeds in the each conference.

Finishing with the fourth-best points percentages, the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers effectively thwarted certain challenges from teams below them in the conference through the balance of the regular season, and will now reap all the rewards from finishing in the top four. Most importantly, both teams can move as high as the top seed by the end of the round-robin tournament without even risking their position in the standings.

For Philadelphia, it’s simply a favourable position. They are a legitimate fourth seed and sit just one point behind the Capitals as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division.

The same can’t be said for Dallas.

The NHL made exceptions for the Stars, blurring the lines between divisions to award them with a protected seed. The Stars had the third-best record in their division and finished the season with less points than the second-ranked team in the Pacific Division. And still, a team with a pedestrian 26 regulation wins will not only avoid playing their way into the postseason, but could wind up with the top seed in the conference.

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