Winners and losers of the 2020 NHL playoff bubbles

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The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs took 65 days, 24 teams, five playoff rounds, two “bubbles” and, most important, 33,394 COVID-19 tests that returned zero positive results, according to the NHL — and that’s not even mentioning the 20,000 or so iced cappuccinos handed out by Tim Hortons.

However you want to calculate it, the quarantined postseason ended on Monday with the Tampa Bay Lightning defeating the Dallas Stars in six games for hockey’s Holy Grail, ending the most remarkable quest for the Stanley Cup in the history of the NHL.

That the season was restarted was amazing. That the season was completed without COVID-19 causing a disruption in the schedule or a massive detriment to player participation is astounding. The safety and security of all involved was paramount, and the NHL and the players partnered up to put on a great show and pull off quite an achievement.

As always, some things worked better than others. Some individuals come out of the bubble looking better than others. And, as we always see in the Stanley Cup playoffs, some teams and players had a better time than others.

Here are the winners and losers of the 2020 Stanley Cup postseason.


Winner: The bubble not bursting

When it comes to health and safety, the NHL was able to put on as safe of an event as is possible during a pandemic. Teams arrived in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, on July 26. Over two months, the NHL administered thousands of daily COVID-19 tests and received zero confirmed positive cases. The league made a series of astute decisions — including pivoting from hosting the tournament in the United States to having it in two Canadian cities where coronavirus rates were much lower — to pull off the Stanley Cup tournament. The NHL also kept a small head count in the bubble, as family members did not join en masse for the conference finals.

“For all the guys that were questioning how safe it would be,” one player told ESPN, “that quickly went away. It was one of the safest places you could be.” In all, the NHL received a ton of internal and external praise when it came to safety. “I almost felt too secure,” another player told ESPN. “With the fences they put up, there was no way anyone was getting in or out.”

Loser: Morale bursting

After the Cup-clinching game on Monday, Lightning coach Jon Cooper and Stars coach Rick Bowness were asked if there’s anything they’ll miss about the bubble experience, or would like duplicated for future bubbles. “Probably the best part of this whole thing is going to be when we check out,” Cooper said. Added Bowness: “There’s not one bit of this bubble life that I’m going to miss.”

As many players detailed to ESPN, the NHL oversold amenities, and many became frustrated by a bait-and-switch when it came to excursions, families joining for later rounds, and even the variety of food selection. A lot about the bubble wasn’t conducive to maintaining mental health, either, as many players went days without breathing fresh air, thanks to the Edmonton hotels being connected to the arena. “I just wish they communicated better,” a player told ESPN. “In light of everything, that’s all we ask for: the proper information. We’re coming here. We all know full well it’s not what we’re used to. Just tell us, and tell us why. But I think a lot of times we were left in the dark, and it gets frustrating for a lot of guys.”

Winner: Backup goalies

The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs were all about backup goalie energy; look no further than the Dallas Stars, who made it all the way to the Final with their No. 2, Anton Khudobin, as Ben Bishop was mostly “unfit to play.” Because of the unusual layoff and condensed schedule — with plenty of teams fatigued by back-to-back games — having more than one capable goaltender was never more important. By the second round, six regular-season backups were de facto No. 1s. Thatcher Demko, Joonas Korpisalo, Jaroslav Halak and Pavel Francouz are all netminders who didn’t enter the tournament as their team’s clear-cut starter but got time to shine in the spotlight.

Loser: Goalies looking to get big paydays this offseason

Here comes the irony. Teams are preaching the importance of goaltending depth, especially with the uncertainty of the 2020-21 slate and the expectation that the schedule could be condensed yet again. There are also plenty of capable (if not exciting) goaltenders hitting free agency or available via the trade market. The only problem? There are too many options.

The market saturation means contract values will decrease and there might not be an immediate starter’s job for everyone who deserves one. Khudobin, Henrik Lundqvist, Jacob Markstrom, Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford, Thomas Greiss, Matt Murray, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson and Cam Talbot are all goalies who could be looking for a new home next season.

Winner: Julien BriseBois

While many still view the Lightning as the team that Steve Yzerman built, BriseBois — the longtime assistant GM — had influence on it, too. But it wasn’t until Yzerman stepped away in 2018 that BriseBois got a chance to truly put his stamp on the roster, and he proved he had a good pulse on the Lightning.

After they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets last year, he decided not to overhaul the roster, but instead acquired five players that seamlessly fit in with the team’s personality, and meshed with their brand of hockey seamlessly. Zach Bogosian, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk all shined during Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup run. Some of the prices BriseBois paid seemed high (such as shelling out first-round picks for Goodrow and Coleman). Some prices seemed low (Bogosian and Shattenkirk were both brought in on budget-friendly, prove-it deals). They all worked out. The GM kept a low profile during the playoffs, but his reputation is only growing in the hockey world.

Loser: Jim Rutherford

The Pittsburgh Penguins GM had high hopes for his team, which battled through terrible injury luck but still sat firmly in playoff position. So Rutherford decided to go all-in, seeing the window for championships with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin closing fast. He was a buyer at the trade deadline, further depleting his team’s prospect and draft pick pool.

It was all for naught. The Penguins were embarrassed by the Montreal Canadiens (the last team included in the expanded playoffs) in the qualifying round, and the roster is perhaps as in flux as it’s ever been. With reports that Pittsburgh has implemented an internal salary cap, Rutherford must wheel and deal yet again. He’s already shipped Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist out of town, and there’s likely a forthcoming trade shipping a goalie away. The Penguins entered the pandemic pause feeling optimistic about their short-term prognosis, only to leave totally deflated about a Cup even being within reach.

Winner: Steve Mayer

The NHL’s chief content officer has one of the most important gigs in the league. He’s the one who has created the aesthetics for the outdoor games and produced other special events. This was, by far, the greatest challenge for Mayer and his staff: Not only dressing up two empty arenas to mimic playoff hockey, but designing all the perks, activities and accoutrement inside two “secure zones” in Toronto and Edmonton to make everyone involved in putting on this show feel safe and sane inside the bubbles. No one worked harder, and the results speak for themselves.

Loser: Transparency

For being a once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) event — 24 teams, players cohabitating and cut off from society — there was surprisingly little we saw and heard from inside the hotels and around bubble life. Teams produced some video content, NHL cameras captured some of it for “Quest For The Stanley Cup” on ESPN+, and the players occasionally would use social media for glimpses into their lives. But there wasn’t nearly enough of it.

This could have been an incredible moment to connect fans with players’ lives like never before, but the bubble was opaque rather than transparent. Contributing to the obfuscation was the fact that unlike in the NBA bubble, independent journalists weren’t allowed inside the NHL secure zone, aside from access to the press box during games.

Winners: The fans

The NHL did all it could to recreate the arena experience for a made-for-TV tournament. That included use of a soundboard of different crowd reactions, mined from the EA Sports library, to punctuate moments during games. That was enough to trick the viewers’ brains just enough to make the games exciting, but the players all said the lack of a crowd affected the intensity of the postseason. That included the usual dynamic in a series, where geography changes can shift the momentum. Perhaps that’s why only four series went the distance in the postseason’s five rounds.

Sometimes the fans are taken for granted despite the value placed on home-ice advantage. Absence will make the heart grow fonder.

Loser: Ticket revenue

This must have been a bittersweet ride for both Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Stars owner Tom Gaglardi as their teams reached the Stanley Cup Final without generating a cent of gate revenue for them during the playoffs. That’s particularly the case for Gaglardi, as many of his business ventures are rooted in the hospitality industry, too. The amount of extra revenue generated by a run to Game 6 of the finals would have been enormous for Dallas. One hopes it at least translates into some new season tickets — for whenever fans get back in the building.

Winner: Gary Bettman

In the past, the NHL had been maligned as the pro sport that sometimes couldn’t get out of its own way, especially when it came to labor peace. As commissioner, Gary Bettman became the public face of those struggles. So it was surreal when Bettman was heralded by pundits and fans of other sports as perhaps the most competitive and cooperative executive during the COVID-19 crisis. The NHL was meticulous, patient and effective in its four-phase restart plan, which resulted in the completion of the season.

Meanwhile, the National Hockey League Players’ Association, Bettman and the owners miraculously pulled together a new collective bargaining agreement that charted a path through the economic crisis. The guy who used to be synonymous with canceling a season played a major role in reviving one.

Loser: Booing Gary Bettman

We were promised jeering! As Bettman took the ice to hand out the Stanley Cup to the Lightning, there was nary an artificial boo on the soundtrack despite the time-honored tradition of the commissioner shouting over the fans’ razzing after the fourth victory of the Final. Mayer told ESPN that Bettman was a good sport about the booing, much like Roger Goodell was during the NFL draft. Alas, inside the bubble, the only heckling heard was among the players. Boooooooo!

Winner: Edmonton

The players felt Toronto had more entertainment options and jokingly called the Edmonton secure zone “the prison yard” thanks to “an oval concrete slab with a freaking Tim Horton’s truck in it and fencing around it,” as one player told ESPN. But the city successfully hosted both conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final, as Edmonton’s COVID-19 rates encouraged the NHL and the NHLPA to finish the season there instead of Toronto. It was safe and secure, which is all hockey fans could ask for from the bubble cities.

Loser: Las Vegas

Sin City looked like an obvious choice to host the Western Conference playoff bubble, given the proximity between local hotel resorts and T-Mobile Arena. But the climbing COVID-19 rate turned the NHL off from staging the postseason in Vegas, opting instead to head north of the border. On top of that, the Western Conference favorite Vegas Golden Knights were upset by Dallas in five games, in a playoff run that will be remembered more for its graphic goalie controversy than for the Knights’ success (or lack thereof).

Winner: Racial unity

The NHL returned to play in a landscape very different from when it paused on March 12. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May sparked global protests and civil unrest and inspired over 100 NHL players to speak out on social media platforms to promote racial unity, justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. The Hockey Diversity Alliance formed this year as a players-run organization to move hockey toward more racial equality. When the NHL restarted its season, there were video packages about the fight against racial violence shown in the arena, and ads that stated “We Skate For Black Lives” shown around the building. Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba gave a heartfelt speech against racial injustice before taking a knee during the U.S. and Canadian national anthems as members of the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks stood around him. Later, four members of the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights joined him in taking a knee.

On Aug. 28, the NHL announced it was postponing playoff games on that Thursday and Friday to stand in solidarity with other sports leagues protesting racial injustice. That was after the league took some criticism for playing all three playoff games on Aug. 26 as scheduled while games in other sports were postponed after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. This included a remarkable moment in the Western Conference as members of the remaining four teams stood behind players of color such as Ryan Reaves of Vegas and Nazem Kadri of Colorado in a show of solidarity for the cause.

Without question, a transformative moment for the NHL … if the momentum carries on after the bubbles, with organizations like the HDA and the NHL’s newly established committees to study and promote diversity in hockey.

Loser: Violent marketing

The physical sacrifice of players in the postseason has been one of the more reliable tropes in NHL marketing for decades. But when the league put out a video during the Stanley Cup Final of players blocking shots with their bodies and feeling the agony from them, it was met with backlash from fans and media, including a New York Times column decrying the “embrace of violence.” The video hit social media right around the time of a bombshell TSN report on abuse of pain medications and anti-inflammatory remedies among players. The NHL deleted the video from its social feeds.

Winner: All-day hockey

For years, hockey fans wondered what it would be like to have the Stanley Cup playoffs scheduled like NCAA March Madness or the Olympics, with games being played all day. Thanks to a 24-team tournament, an additional postseason round and fans stuck indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, we wondered no more.

It was pretty awesome to watch hockey from noon through midnight nearly every day in the early part of the postseason. (Although pity the poor small-market teams that were stuck playing their games in the early afternoon with regularity. But hey, someone has to be the Ivy League and/or Latvia in this comparison.)

Loser: Playoff expansion

Fans also got a taste for what an expanded playoff field looks like, as the NHL added a qualification round for teams that were right on the playoff bubble when the season was paused as well as a round-robin for the conferences’ higher seeds, so they could stay sharp. While no one expected the NHL to endorse going to 24 teams in future postseasons, the addition of Seattle to the league in two seasons means half the NHL wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs under the current format.

Yet for all the fun of additional playoff teams this summer, and the NHL’s vital need to boost revenue in the near future, Bettman continues to keep playoff expansion off the table, saying there isn’t an appetite on the part of team owners for it.



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