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NHL Update: A 24 team playoff idea emerging, and Matt Murray’s new goalie coach

Some great nuggets from Elliotte Friedman this week in his 31 Thoughts column show how the league might push on this summer

NHL: MAR 10 Penguins at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NHL’s ideas and tentative plans to re-start the 2019-20 season change on a very regular basis. The whole pandemic situation has been a unique, complex and impossible-to-predict scenario for society as a whole to navigate, let alone professional sports.

Here’s what we know though, which may only be good for today, but it’s the best we got. There are signs of life beginning to pop up around sports. The UFC held an event last weekend and has more planned. NASCAR will roar back to life this Sunday at an empty race track in Darlington. Across the pond, German and English soccer teams are inching towards June returns.

And the NHL is trying to get back too. Here’s what Gary Bettman said on Tuesday afternoon, making it really clear his stance is more “when” than “if” the NHL comes back this season.

Appearing as a guest in a virtual town hall hosted by the San Jose Sharks for members of its business alliance, Bettman, responding to a question, said ending the season without crowning a champion is, “not something I’m even contemplating.”

“I believe that if the right time comes, and the right circumstances, based on all of the options that we’re considering and our ability to execute them, we’ll get this season done,” Bettman said. “I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution. That means you stop working hard to do all of the things that we’re doing, and I ultimately believe that there will be an opportunity.”

From Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts (well worth a read this week), here is one concept for 24 teams to return. This is far from officially the plan:

The top teams still don’t like the idea of sitting around while everyone below them gets meaningful games. It’s definitely a disadvantage. One idea that’s been thrown around is a set number of “regular-season” games among those teams in their respective hubs, but there’s a worry about “wasting” time during such uncertainty.

Here is an idea for a 24-team setup that can address some of those concerns:

METROPOLITAN HUB: Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Islanders, Columbus

ATLANTIC HUB: Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Florida, Montreal, Rangers (added as lowest seed from Metropolitan — Bruins are top-ranked in East, and should have that reward in their hub)

CENTRAL HUB: St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas, Winnipeg, Nashville, Chicago (Blackhawks stay in Central because Blues are top-ranked in West)

PACIFIC HUB: Vegas, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Arizona, Minnesota

The first round “becomes” a five-game round robin — with a handicap by standings at arrival of the pause. Based on points percentage, the seeds could be given from 10 points (first) to 0 (sixth) at the start. If you think that’s too much, maybe go from five points to zero. That way, every team that comes back gets a minimum of five games.

Top four move on to the next round, and decide if we’re dealing with best-of-five or best-of-seven from then on.

This is an interesting idea that appears to be feasible. The league would only need to have four host cities, and games would surely be played without fans in attendance. Already some states are starting to re-open, the “stay at home” order in almost all of Western Pennsylvania expires today as the state allows a slight re-phasing from red to yellow in the plan to get back. Some states like Arizona and Florida are welcoming the return of pro sports. (Probably not the most hockey friendly summer climates, though).

Again, the first step is allowing players to get back in facilities, and that hasn’t happened yet. The league will also have to figure out what to do in hard-hit areas like Boston, New York and Philadelphia which absolutely won’t be able to have their players congregate locally.

But, as time continues to pass and plans continue to morph and form, it does feel like summer hockey and the eventual conclusion of the 2019-20 season by the NHL is going to happen in some fashion.

Friedman also had a great note about Penguins goalie Matt Murray:

[Personal coach Adam] Francilia, whose other clients include Thomas Greiss, Connor Hellebuyck and non-goalies like Justin Schultz, is now working with Matt Murray. They were introduced when Francilia visited Pittsburgh during the season. He didn’t want to go into what they are doing in much detail, so I tried it this way: Will Penguins fans notice a difference when play resumes?

“Yes,” Francilia answered. “In general terms, we’ve identified some structural deficiencies that weren’t allowing him to create the foundation of stance that he should have. A couple of hiccups were affecting his biomechanics.”

He compared Murray to Hellebuyck in the sense that both are “thinkers.”

Friedman also said of Francilla’s methods, through a quote from San Jose goalie Martin Jones:

Francilia’s expertise is biomechanics — that’s going to be a focus.

“Just making sure I’m moving the right way,” Jones said. “I don’t think you really realize it, but things accumulate over the years. When you start looking at it closely it sneaks up on you.”

This could be really great for Murray. Clearly he has some areas of his game to sharpen and getting a fresh set of ideas, perspective and coaching voice can’t be a negative for him at this point. At a lot of times this season and last, Murray just perceptively didn’t look like the steady force we all saw in net in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs. Perhaps this could help.

Francilla’s work with Hellebuyck really ought to stand out too. Like Murray, Hellebuyck’s career has been a roller coaster of really tremendous seasons, sandwiched by letdowns and very average years. Here’s a hockey-reference look at Hellebuyck:

After a season in 2017-18 where he led the league in wins, finished second in the Vezina voting for best goalie and got some MVP votes, Hellebuyck was not as hot in 2018-19. But he was able to rebound and have a much better season — in fact, the best season in his career by the terms of a quality start percentage — in 2019-20.

Who knows how much credit for that great bounce-back belongs to his private goalie coach, but that’s the kind of effect the Pens should be hoping that can happen for Matt Murray.

It also just again demonstrates how fickle goaltending performances can be. Hellebuyck was poor in 2016-17 (47.2% Quality Start%), once of the league’s elite in 2017-18 (60.9% QS%), at his worst in 2018-19 (45.2% QS%) then at his best in 2019-20 (64.3% QS%). If the trend holds, that would mean another down season next year, but Hellebuyck has the skill and technique to where that really shouldn’t be the case.

Fittingly enough, Murray is about the exact same as Hellebuyck, though his highs aren’t as high:

Rob Vollman, who developed the QS% stat, says league average is 53%, and anything above 60% is really good. (Murray has a 63.8% QS% in 47 playoff starts). His regular seasons have been tougher though. After a lights out start in 2015-16, Murray has only been a little above average in 2016-17 and 2018-19. That’s sandwiched in between below average seasons in 2017-18 and 2019-20. Like Hellebuyck, Murray is one year up, then one year way down. Unlike Hellebuyck, Murray’s down years take him into the negative territory on Goals Saved Above Average.

In an ideal world, this coach can sharpen Murray’s mechanics and get him back to around the .920 save% and 60ish% quality start threshold, to levels that he is around when on his game. Whether or not that will actually happen, well, stay tuned.

It’s always interesting to track the ups and downs at the position, as it will be to see what (if anything) changes for Murray as a result of a biomechanical focus to his training.