With all the major sports seasons on hold due to COVID-19, fans who like a flutter are heading over to the best casinos USA instead. But if, or hopefully when, the National Hockey League 2019-2020 season restarts, what teams are in with a chance of making the play-offs? Looking further ahead, which teams are the best ones to bet on to win this year’s Stanley Cup?

The season was put on ice, metaphorically as well as literally, on March 12. With the regular season due to end on April 4, this was extremely frustrating for fans and players alike. All the teams had played at least 68 of their 82 games, with some having managed 72. We had a pretty good idea of which teams were likely to go through to the play-offs, but there was still room to maneuver, especially in the wild card slots. The season was close enough to call, but not so close that a few major shake-ups weren’t possible, and even likely.

How will the NHL proceed?

Mar 10, 2020; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Christopher Tanev (8) battles for the puck against New York Islanders forward Anders Lee (27) during the third period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, right now we don’t know when games are likely to resume, or what format the season will take when this happens. There are two main options: either go directly to the play-offs, based on current standings, or restart the regular season where it paused. Beyond this, other ideas that have been floated include a play-in scenario to give outside teams a chance, or an extended playoff with 24 or even 31 teams included rather than the usual 16.     

Right now, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association are in constant communication and have formed a Return To Play Committee that includes both players and executives. At this stage, nothing has been ruled out, including the possibility of pushing back the start of the 2020-21 season in order to allow more time for the current tournament to play out.

Current standings

In the Eastern Conference, Boston Bruins are at the top of the Atlantic Division with 100 points after 70 games played. This gives them a point percentage of .714, comfortably ahead of all the other teams in the league. Coming up behind them are the Tampa Bay Lightning (92 points) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (81 points). Over in the Metropolitan Division, we have the Washington Capitals (90 points), Philadelphia Flyers (89 points), and Pittsburgh Penguins (86 points).

If the regular season was declared over today, these are the teams from the Eastern Conference that would go through to the play-offs, along with the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets (81 points each in the wild card picks).

Over in the west, the St Louis Blues lead the Central Division with 94 points, followed by the Colorado Avalanche (92 points) and the Dallas Stars (82 points). The Vegas Golden Knights are currently top of the Pacific Division with 86 points, trailed by the Edmonton Oilers (83 points) and Calgary Flames (79 points). The wild cards are the Winnipeg Jets (80 points) and Nashville Predators (78 points).

Straight to the play-offs

Mar 11, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat (12) moves the puck away from San Jose Sharks defenseman Radim Simek (51) in the first period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

This is where it gets interesting. Rather than use the current standings to determine which teams go through to the play-offs, most argue that, assuming we cancel the regular season and go straight to the conventional 16-team play-offs, a point percentage system would be a fairer way to determine who goes through. Some teams have played more games than others, and so have had more opportunity to pick up points: this, many say, should be taken into account if the regular season doesn’t resume. It’s not ideal, and some teams will still feel cheated, but it’s better than nothing.

Standings based on point percentage

With a point percentage of .588, based on 80 points in 68 games, the New York Islanders would take the bottom wild card slot in the east from the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose 81 points come from 70 games, giving them a percentage of .579. They’d then likely go up against Boston in the play-offs, with Washington meeting Carolina.

Over in the west it’s an even bigger shake-up, as the Winnipeg Jets wild card spot is predicated on their having scored 80 points in 71 games, meaning their percentage is just .563. Selecting teams on this basis would be a winning opportunity for the Vancouver Canucks, who have won one less game than the Nashville Predators but are otherwise neck and neck: both have 78 points in 69 games and a .565 percentage. That actually puts both teams higher than the Calgary Flames (79 points in 70 games, .564). 

The long lay-off should give Canucks goalkeeper Jacob Markstrom time to recover from injury, meaning that Vancouver could even be outside contenders for the cup. This would be the biggest shake-up of all, but which way the league goes still remains to be seen.