The Arizona Coyotes will head straight to the playoffs under a plan announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Twenty-four teams will compete for the Stanley Cup, and if the plan comes to fruition, the Coyotes will face the Nashville Predators in a five-game series ahead of the playoffs’ first round.
Coyotes center Derek Stepan isn’t sure how it’s going to play out.
“We were given an opportunity here to play in a postseason and compete for the cup,” said Stepan, during a Zoom teleconference. “You play in a regular season to have that opportunity, whether it’s through 16 teams or, in our case, the 24 teams.
“We could sit here and argue about every fairness point and what’s going to happen going forward. Nobody really knows. There’s still a lot of hurdles that need to be hopped before we play any type of hockey, but we got a second chance and we get to play in the playoffs.”
John Chayka, the team’s president of hockey operations and general manager, is on board with the decision.
“It’s an imperfect situation that probably requires somewhat of an imperfect solution,” Chayka said.
“Having said that, I personally believe it’s very reflective of the league that we play in. It’s a league of parity. My personal view in looking at all the series? I think they’re all going to be competitive series that could go either way, so I think settling on 24 teams probably makes a lot of logical sense.”
Coach Rick Tocchet made it clear his focus is on the playoffs and winning hockey games.
“This is going to be a roundtable debate on what’s fair and what’s not,” he said. “The 24-team format is what they’re going with and that’s where my energy is. We’re excited to be in. Our players are excited to play Nashville, a great organization and a great team. That’s all my focus is on.
“The opinions of what’s fair or not, if they went to 16 or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. I just look at our team and worry about our hockey club.”
While there are still obstacles to get over and return to play, Stepan explained why he remains optimistic they can get done.
“If there’s one thing that both the NHL and the Players’ Association are pushing for, it’s solutions that make everyone feel safe and give us the opportunity to play the game the way it should be played. There’s certainly a lot of things that can be done that I think are manageable, things that both sides are going to have to find that middle ground. But for now I would say it’s not impossible, but there’s hurdles that need to be jumped.”
The natural question, though, is how quickly the team can get their players back in Arizona.
“Relatively speaking, we have quite a few guys still in Arizona, which is a positive because it just makes things a little easier,” Chayka said.
“We still have a number of guys outside. We’re working through getting them back with quarantine rules and things like that. I don’t really have an answer for you on when those guys will be back. I think it’s just one of those things where we’re trying to create a safe environment for those guys to return and start training. If they’re in a different area and they’re able to return and train in a safe way, that’s fine with us as well.”
Chayka is prepared to deal with bringing players back from overseas.
“I think it’s a hurdle; it’s something we’ve got to deal with,” he said.
“Do I think it’s going to hold back a return to training camp or a return to play? I don’t see it being a negating item, but it’s certainly one that needs to be addressed; and there will be some headaches going back and forth, but it doesn’t seem to be insurmountable to get there.”