NHL’s draft plan would throw crazy twist into Stanley Cup chase

The only question the NHL and NHLPA must answer when it is time to declare its intentions on reviving the season is the one that Sir Laurence Olivier repeatedly asked Dustin Hoffman in the guises of the evil Szell and the naïve Babe in the movie masterpiece, “Marathon Man.”

Is it safe?

Beyond that, it’s all a bag of shells.

Because we should all recognize this: When it comes to designing a format, should the league get back on the ice this summer, there is going to be no right and no wrong. Despite everyone’s best efforts, some teams (and their fans) will feel slighted. Conversely, some teams (and their fans) will receive second chances they ordinarily would not have earned.

But there is nothing ordinary about any of this.

If governing health bodies — as opposed to elected officials seeking to curry favor — endorse the NHL’s plan to resume play, then the league should have at it and implement the format and calendar that would generate the greatest interest and largest audience. That will demand creativity.

And that might entail holding the draft as scheduled, obviously as a virtual event, on the dates of June 26-27 even if the season were to resume in July. TSN’s Pierre Lebrun was the first to report on the concept that has been kicking around Sixth Avenue.

At first blush, it seems crazy, doesn’t it? If the intent is to complete the regular season, a team could conceivably win the lottery, get the first-overall pick, and then a few months later win the Stanley Cup. The league would have to adopt a policy dealing with conditional trades that would impact the order of selection and good luck on that.

And you wouldn’t be able to make trades involving players on the active roster. But that sounds more significant than it actually is, because for all the anticipation of draft-floor blockbusters being pulled off, there have been fewer than 10 draft-day(s) deals involving roster players the last three years.

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The upside of holding the draft as originally scheduled in June ahead of the finalization of 2019-20 is that the league would put itself in the spotlight by creating news. That isn’t nothing. One can only write about the Emile Francis Era so often, though I promise there is more up my sleeve. Holding the draft would also allow for a normalized process for the draftees and their junior, college or development squads here and overseas.

Of course, not only is nothing normal, it surely won’t be in June, July, August or September, if by normal you’re referring to pre-pandemic. The draftees should be the least of the NHL’s and NHLPA’s concerns. Players drafted in 2004 had no NHL in which to play the following season when Owners’ Lockout III canceled 2004-05. They survived.

Here’s the thing, and I’ll come back to a concept I may have ridiculed a month ago. If the draft proceeds on its scheduled dates, it would preclude the ability to hold a lottery tournament for the seven NHL teams that are hopelessly out of the playoff picture, winner gets first-overall.

And holding that type of tournament may make sense in the context of providing meaningful competition for the Devils, Sabres, Senators, Red Wings, Ducks, Kings and Sharks. These franchises have the need to complete as much of their obligations to their media rights holders as possible. I appreciate that. But playing out the string of meaningless regular-season matches holds no appeal.

If you could stage a lottery round-robin, these players and organizations would have something to play for that is meaningful. Perhaps some of the $16 million pool created for the Stanley Cup playoffs could be diverted into prize money for the lottery tournament. If not, perhaps the league could sell the tournament as a separate television entity that would generate revenue that would go into the pool.

While those seven teams would vie for the Lottery Trophy, the remaining 24 would be entered into a Stanley Cup tournament that would involve a preliminary play-in round for the eight teams below the cut line when the season stopped and a second play-in round between those four winners and the four teams in wild-card spots on March 11. Maybe two rounds of a two-game total-goals series.

That would sift the field to 16, where, absent travel issues, teams would be seeded 1-16 and then reseeded throughout the tournament. There would be three rounds of best-of-five followed by a best-of-seven final.

Or maybe something else. But the point is, the NHL should be bold and creative if able to get back on the ice in July. The bigger the better.

Of course, only if it is safe.

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