Michael Rand: In NHL and NBA restarts, the best teams will suffer the most

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The last few months have taught us plenty of lessons, and the most consistent one might be this: everything is subject to change.

This shows up in very serious ways in the midst of a pandemic. In less serious ways, the notion of adjusting on the fly has permeated entities that have typically been change-averse — major United States professional sports leagues.

Faced with a choice of getting creative or having no chance at starting (or re-starting) seasons, leagues like the NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS are basically making things up as they go along.

A realigned, streamlined schedule? Having all games played in just one or two locations? Completely re-imagining a playoff format? Things that would normally take years to agree on are taking weeks.

Whether all this energy being spent on return-to-play proposals is a healthy endeavor — literally and figuratively — is a debate that will linger.

What seems clear at the moment, though, is this: particularly in the NHL and NBA, based on widely reported plans and proposals, the curve running from the worst to the best teams will be flattened in the playoffs.

By necessity, playoffs in a pandemic will level the playing field in unprecedented ways. The best teams will be at the biggest relative disadvantage, and any team with a chance to compete could end up as the champion.

The NHL playoff plan, revealed Tuesday, offers the most concrete example of this. Among the highlights of the plan, which will go into effect later this summer as long as the league has clearance to resume play, skips ahead straight to the playoffs, adds four teams to each conference postseason mix (from 16 total to 24 total) and puts the top four teams in each conference into a round-robin tournament to determine seeding.

This is great for the Wild, which would have missed the playoffs if the season had merely ended and the top eight in each conference would have been picked. Instead, Minnesota is slated to play Vancouver in a best-of-5 play-in series with two potentially beneficial outcomes: win and advance with momentum; lose and get a shot at the draft lottery.

But what about the best of the best? While those four teams in each conference seemingly get a bye, they really just get the right to skip to the next round while the 5-12 seeds battle it out in best-of-5 series. So they get a bye into what would be the typical 16-team field.

A team like Boston, which was eight points clear of any other team in the East and had a 93.1% chance of being the top seed when the season was shut down in March, now has to play its way into that top spot in the round-robin.

But the biggest overall leveler is simple: With no fans in the stands, and almost all games being played at what amount to neutral sites — one “hub” city in each conference — whatever home ice advantage is gained throughout the course of a regular season is largely negated in the playoffs.

None of the top four seeds in the East is under consideration as a hub city. Instead of having the built-in edge of an extra home game in a seven-game series, they will be playing a series of fan-less games guaranteed not to be on their home ice. As higher seeds, they’ll still have the edge of the last line change during stoppages. But that’s about it.

The NBA is still sorting through its format, but no matter how it arrives at its playoff plan the games themselves are likely to be in an empty arena in Orlando. While the value of home field/court/ice has perhaps eroded a little in recent years because of better sleep and easier travel for away teams, it’s still an edge.

Small sample size evidence shows that even teams that get to play at home in empty stadiums have had their advantage erased. In Germany, home teams have won just three of 22 soccer matches in empty stadiums since Bundesliga play resumed.

That perhaps underscores the biggest unknown in all of this: With little-to-no atmosphere at games without fans, how will even the best teams and players adjust emotionally to compete at high levels?

We’ll probably find out later this summer in playoffs that figure to be unlike any other we’ve seen — and hopefully ever will see again.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)