If all goes to plan, the 31 NHL franchises will hit the ice to start the regular season as soon as January 15th of the new year. The slated proposal would see clubs play a total of 56 games plus playoffs in a 28 week stretch finishing the week before the start of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23rd.
The question is, what would a season of this nature look like?
In the last 25 years, there have been two seasons shortened, both to 48 games, and both due to lockouts (94-95, 12-13). In those seasons, 16 first round matchups resulted in 9 series wins by the lower seeded team, good enough for 56%. In the 23 seasons (not including 2013) since the 95’ lockout, that percentage is much lower, sitting at 35%, with 65 of 184 battles going to the underdog.
This maps a rather predictable trend when it comes to the nature of a shortened season. Given the smaller sample size in regular season games, as they are the determinant in who the contenders are, there’s bound to be a larger discrepancy in the number of upsets that occur, and this year will more than likely be no different.
If anything, that only has the potential to make next year’s playoffs more exciting. With unpredictability at the forefront, no one really knows what will happen. You take guesses and make claims all you want, but ultimately, everything will be based upon barely over half of a normal season. Sometimes, like in the case of the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues, it just takes some time for a team to hit their stride. They were 15-18-4 and dead last in the entire league to begin the 2019 calendar year, following that, they would begin to pick up some steam, but by the 48 game mark, where the last two lockout seasons concluded, they would be short of playoff qualification by four points. From that point, the team would go on a franchise record 11 game winning streak and finish the season 30-10-5 in their last 45 en route to a Stanley Cup Victory.
In a 52 or 56 game season, as this one is slated to be, the Enterprise Center’s melancholy club would have found themselves the bottom feeders of a Western Conference field boasting a wealth of talent in the midst of a winning streak. They were hot at the time, and that success could’ve continued into the playoffs for a period, but like with all teams, at some point, they have to come back down to earth, and when the Blues did so in the regular season, it was more of a crash than a graceful landing. So it’s in the cards that if that were to happen in the playoffs, it very well could’ve played out along the same lines.
And if that were to happen, the identity of that entire season for the league itself would change, the story line would no longer be St. Louis’ historic worst-to-first run, but rather the spotlight would shine on another 23 who came to raise Lord Stanley’s cup.
It’s not just an extra 25 or 30 games, that final stretch can and often is the determining factor for how the playoffs play out. So while it may be necessary to shorten the season this year, there is still very much the question of “what could’ve been” in the air regardless of the outcome. And that is a question that will never be answered.