Finally, at long last, it appears as if the NHL will return. With the announcement from the NHL Player’s Association that they’ve approved a 24-team modified Stanley Cup Playoffs, and with the league expected to make the final decision in the next few days, it appears that we will see a 2020 Stanley Cup Champion awarded sometime this summer.

We don’t have the full details of the tournament, including a start date. We don’t have confirmation of the Nashville Predators’ first round opponent (or “play-in” round as it is being called), though indications are that it will be the Arizona Coyotes. Nor do we know know when players will be able to hit the ice to start practicing again.

What we do have is hope. Hope that sports are finally back.

The Preds have been idle, along with the rest of the league, since March 10th. After beating the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 4-2, the league was suspended on March 12th, before the Preds would play the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

That was 73 days ago.

And while we still have to wait another 20-30 days for hockey to return (most think the modified tournament will take place in early July), it feels like we’ve finally reached a light at the end of the tunnel.

NHL’s modified tourney toughest yet

When we first learned the league was leaning towards a 24-team playoff, it seemed like too bold an idea for a conservative league like the NHL to entertain. Many thought the league would rather cancel the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs instead of host a Frankenstein-version of the best tournament in sports.

Remember, this league is steeped in tradition. It loves the history of the Stanley Cup, one of the most cherished trophies in all of sports. Would it want to risk the sanctity of the Stanley Cup? Would teams and players care as much about this version of the tournament? What about the fans?

And then there’s the question of legacy.

Would this Stanley Cup Championship mean as much as the others? Would lifting those 35 pounds of silver have the same weight if your team didn’t endure the same grueling four rounds of playoffs that other teams have had to endure over the years?

Or would it mean more?

Consider this.

Between 1979 and 2019, every Stanley Cup Champion endured a playoff with 15 other teams vying for the same trophy. Four difficult rounds, each one harder than the last. It’s what made the Stanley Cup so challenging to win and so rewarding to lift over your head at the end of it all.

But under this year’s version, they’d be “competing” against 23 other teams. And teams in the first round (the “play-in” round) would have to endure five rounds, not four. They would also be doing so amid the most unprecedented league suspension in history, having to mobilize their efforts at the drop of a hat, not to mention potentially risking their own lives during a worldwide pandemic.

If a team in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs ends up winning the Cup, wouldn’t they have successfully navigated the most difficult championship in hockey history?

Why would we put an asterisk on that?

If anything, we should be putting an asterisk on all of the other championship runs, who overcame easier odds and a less challenging overall environment.

Preds could have tough road to championship

We still don’t have all the details on the upcoming tournament, but based on what seems likely, the Nashville Predators will have a very difficult path to the Stanley Cup.

First, as the 6-seed, they will probably take on the Arizona Coyotes, the 11-seed, in the play-in round. Most reports are that the play-in round will be a best-of-five series, which gives very little margin for error.

The Coyotes are considerably younger and faster than the Predators right now. They also traded for one of the league’s best centers in Taylor Hall back in December. Add to that some superb goaltending from Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and the Coyotes pose a significant threat to win three games in five tries.

The Preds also have some serious questions on their team. Though they seemed to be resolving some of their issues when the league shutdown in March, they’ve been a very inconsistent team all season long in all three phases of the game. They would need players like Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson and Kyle Turris to snap out of disappointing offensive seasons immediately.

Also, would they move forward with Juuse Saros as the starting goalie, forcing Pekka Rinne to the bench in the playoffs for the first time in over a decade? Saros was on a hot streak in early March, but can he continue that after three months off?

Defensively, can Roman Josi continue his Norris Trophy caliber season? Is Ryan Ellis finally healthy enough to contribute again? Will John Hynes continue to rely on guys like Dan Hamhuis and Jared Tinordi or will he bring in younger defensemen to create a defensive spark?

So many questions and so little answers at the moment.

The Preds might not be able to put it all together at this point and make a deep run to the Stanley Cup Final like they did in 2017. But if they did, I would argue it would be an even more impressive feat and arguably one of the best championship runs in all of sports.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —
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