A best-of-seven series through four rounds with fans along for the ride is what Wild center Eric Staal loves about the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s the journey he went on to become a champion in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“You dream of winning a Stanley Cup, and that energy and that momentum and those moments of memory are with fans and with people and with excitement,” the 16-year veteran said.
But if the NHL resumes the season that was put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, the finish could be unlike any other quest for the Cup in league history.
“You’d have to adjust,” Staal said Thursday during a video conference call. “I’m a pretty traditional type guy as far as that goes, so I lean more on the side of keeping it the way it’s always been. But obviously there’s lots of other factors that go along with that.”
The latest return-to-play scenario reportedly being considered by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association wouldn’t wrap up the regular season nor jump to a normal playoff structure.
According to Sportsnet and ESPN, a 24-team format is the focus. The top four teams from each conference will receive a bye and the remaining eight teams from the Eastern and Western conferences would face off in a best-of-five series to advance. That would get the NHL to its usual 16-team playoff, and from there the typical best-of-seven competition would commence.
An expanded field makes sense since not everyone logged the same number of games when the league suspended play March 12. But by flexing to 24, the bubble teams like the Wild aren’t the only ones to get a second chance. So do some of the long shots.
“There’s no perfect scenario in this situation,” said Staal, who also called the extended border closure between the United States and Canada a hurdle. “Obviously with everything that’s gone on over the last few months, and how the countries have basically shut down, it’s a total different landscape and you’ve just got to adjust and figure it out as you go. So, I will do the same, and I’m sure everybody else will, too.
“So just figure out the best process. I don’t know what that is. But if I get a chance to vote and have an opinion when there’s something concrete, I’ll do that.”
The Associated Press reported a vote on the format was taking place Thursday night. Staal said he wasn’t sure how a vote would go, whether it would be done on an individual basis or by teams. He also hasn’t heard of a definite proposal, but plenty has been speculated about in recent weeks — like centralizing the action in hub cities without fans in attendance.
“It’s hard right now to envision, me personally, coming back and playing in a city away from your family for a couple of months and in front of no fans,” Staal said. “I feel like that’s a little bit difficult to envision, but there’s been a lot of things that have been difficult to envision getting to this point.”
Asked if he thought the season would get completed, Staal said: “I don’t know. I have a hard time envisioning it, to be completely honest. There’s just so many hoops, so many hurdles, so many different factors that go along in order for it to finish. But with the discussions and the committees put together, it seems like they’re very intent on trying to get it finished. But it’s hard to say. I can’t give you a concrete answer either way.”
Switching up the setup might be what it takes to get back sooner than later, Staal said, and although the process would be unique, he still feels a championship will be meaningful. What won’t be the same, though, is the atmosphere.
“There’s no way to manufacture that as a player. There’s just not, and that’s just the truth,” said the 35-year-old Staal, who has appeared in 58 career playoff games. “Sure, it would still be intense. Sure, it would still be guys competing at their highest level and their hardest because that’s what we do and that’s what players do, and that’s what guys do. There would definitely be that still, but as far as comparing it to a full building in a Game 7, there’s no comparison.”
Under the current potential plan, teams would be ranked based on points percentage and the play-in games would be bracketed. That means the No. 10 Wild would square off against the No. 7 Canucks. The Wild won the season series 2-1.
“If that was the case,” Staal said, “we would have our work cut out for us.”
At home with his family in Minnesota during this lull, Staal feels a couple weeks is enough time to get back to game form. He has been biking outdoors.
“The guys that play this game have been doing it for so long and are such great athletes that you’d be amazed at how quickly a two-week camp or a week camp of guys on the ice every day how quickly they can get the touch back and the competitiveness back,” said Staal, who had 19 goals and 28 assists in 66 games. “It doesn’t take long.”
While cautious, Staal doesn’t have any concerns about continuing the NHL season during the pandemic but acknowledged others might.
“To live in fear and be scared is not an approach that I’ve taken to life,” he said. “But there’s definitely reservation there, and I’m sure there is for other guys.”
He misses hockey and hopes the Wild gets an opportunity to continue the run it was on before the season paused. The circumstances might not be what he’s used to, but he’d be back doing what he enjoys.
“To go through the playoff run with nobody in the building is going to be really weird and different,” Staal said. “To me, it’s hard to kind of wrap your head around it. Obviously if that’s the route we go, and it goes, you just figure it out and you do it. I don’t love it personally, but there’s lots of things in life you kind of deal with as you go.”