NHL players are certainly an unselfish breed, mostly motivated by the pursuit of a silver chalice they can share with teammates and friends.
They have one paycheck due them for the 2019-20 regular season, and they’ll get that regardless of whether play resumes from the COVID-19 crisis and the Stanley Cup is awarded this summer. The playoff bonus pool is $15 million, a relatively small number when considering each member of the Cup-winning team receives between $150,000 and $200,000, depending on how many players get a share.
So returning to play is not all about the Cup. Just mostly.
It’s also about revenue sharing and protecting their brand. The players want to help the NHL return from the coronavirus pandemic and gain strength for the future. They recognize how important the league’s television deal is with NBC — particularly this summer when playoff games can fill prime slots previously held by the Olympics.
They will play in empty buildings but likely in front of large TV audiences.
“There is a possibility to get a playoff bonus, too,” Avs defenseman Ian Cole, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh, told me over the phone. “There is a little bit more, financially speaking, to that. And then there’s revenue sharing and escrow that would take place next year if we’re not able to get back and claw back some revenue that we lost. So there are quite a few more financial issues to it, certainly, that coming back to play will benefit — whether that’s now or in the future.
“That being said, certainly the primary driver is the ability to compete for a Stanley Cup. You only have so many opportunities to be on a really great team that has a very legitimate chance and I view us as a team that has a very legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup. I look around all the teams in the league and, obviously, I’m quite a bit biased, but I think we can beat any team in this league in a seven-game series.”
So the Avalanche has tremendous hunger to return this season. The San Jose Sharks, not so much.
The Western Conference last-place Sharks, along with fellow California teams Anaheim and Los Angeles, are undoubtedly happy to learn of the league’s straight-to-the-playoffs approach. Same goes for the Eastern Conference’s weakest teams — Detroit, Ottawa, New Jersey and Buffalo.
Those combined seven teams don’t have much incentive to restart the regular season in a scenario that would begin with a two-week training camp, only to finish the remaining 11-13 regular-season games before empty arenas in “hub” cities and then go back to where they came from while quarantined. Doesn’t make sense.
Some believe the 24-team playoff is two teams too many because Chicago in the west and Montreal in the east don’t deserve to get in. The Blackhawks (32-30-8, 72 points) are six points out of a traditional playoff picture and the Canadiens (31-31-9, 71 points) are 10 points out. In a typical season at this time of the year, they would have virtually no chance of making the playoffs.
“Money comes into play for sure,” former NBC and Avs television analyst Brian Engblom told me recently. “It’s Chicago and Montreal. Big hockey markets. The league obviously wants them in the picture.”
The Blackhawks and Canadiens might also be in the picture because a 22-team playoff doesn’t work with 11 teams on each side. Worth noting is that the Arizona Coyotes and New York Rangers were close enough to sniff the playoffs when the league suspended play March 12. Arizona is four points out in the west and the Rangers just two behind in the east.
Canceling the rest of the regular season and going into a 24-team playoff is a good plan.
Unless the Blackhawks or Canadiens win the Cup.
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