NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league and the NHL Players’ Association have agreed on a return-to-play format in the event the 2019-20 season can resume.
The 24-team plan would see the top-4 clubs the Eastern and Western Conference play two mini round-robin tournaments to determine seeding for the playoffs.
The other eight teams in each conference would play best-of-five “play-in” series — No. 5 versus No. 12, No. 6 versus No. 11, No. 7 versus No. 10, and No. 8 versus No. 9 — to determine the 16 clubs left standing in the playoffs.
Bettman says the first- and second-round playoff matchups could be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series, but the conference finals and Stanley Cup final will be best-of-seven.
“Obviously these are extraordinary and unprecedented times,” Bettman said. “Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect. I am certain that depending on which team you root for, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently. But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that as a practical matter, might have had a chance (at) qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused.
“This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the post-season gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”
Bettman added the 2019-20 regular-season is “deemed to be completed,” meaning that the mini tournaments and qualifying round won’t count towards end-of-year statistics.
Tuesday’s announcement is an important step in the league’s bid to restart the season, which was suspended March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but does not guarantee a return to action.
The NHL and its players still have plenty of work to do, including receiving the go-ahead from government and health officials, timing, the location of hub cities, testing procedures and ensuring the safety of everyone involved.
Bettman said the league wants two cities to serve as hubs for each conference — without fans in attendance — adding that 10 remain on the short list, including Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.
The union’s executive board — made up of a player representative from each team — approved the 24-club format mapped out by the NHL/NHLPA’s Return To Play Committee in a vote Friday. Bettman says the NHL’s board of governors also gave the thumbs up to the format this week.
“We remain focused on the safety of our players, coaches, support staff and arena personnel,” Bettman said. “We will not set dates, choose sites or begin to play until we know what’s appropriate and prudent, and are approved to do so.”
Under the 24-team plan, Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia would compete for the No. 1 slot in the East, while defending Cup champions St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas would do the same out West.
The East’s best-of-five “play-in” series would see No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 New York Rangers, No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus.
Montreal, the 12th seed, sat with a paltry 71 points from 71 games — including just 19 regulation wins — when the season was paused amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.
In the West, the best-of-five matchups would include No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Arizona, No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Minnesota and No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg.
The four winners of the best-of-five matchups in each conference would then be pitted against the top-4 seeds.
The seven teams on the outside looking in — Buffalo, New Jersey, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa and Detroit — now all face an off-season that could stretch into next winter.
The NHL also announced the format for its draft lottery, which will be held June 26 on what would have been the night of the first round of the 2020 NHL draft, for the seven teams outside the top-24. The eight teams eliminated in the qualifying round will also be eligible, but the order of the top three picks may not end up being decided until after the “play-in” is completed.
The league announced earlier this week it hopes to move to Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol, including the opening of team facilities and allowing groups of up to six players on the ice at one time under strict guidelines, early next month. Phase 3 would be training camps, while Phase 4 would be the resumption of play.
Bettman said training camps won’t start before July 1.
The NHL playoffs traditionally involve eight teams from each conference, with the winner having to navigate four best-of-seven series following a full schedule. The 2019-20 campaign was halted in March with 189 games remaining, and teams having played an uneven number of contests. The league has said it wants to ensure a full 82-game schedule in 2020-21.
The Cup has been awarded every year since 1893, save for 1919 because of the Spanish flu outbreak, and 2005 when a lockout led to the cancellation of the entire campaign.
According to the website sportsclubstats.com, Montreal, which sat 10 points back of the East’s second wild-card spot on March 12, had a zero per cent chance of making the usual 16-team playoff field at the time of the pause. In the West, Chicago’s chances sat at 2.6 per cent, while Arizona was at 16.6 per cent.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
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