The NHL has a plan. Now it’s hoping to eventually get the green light.
The league unveiled a return-to-play format Tuesday that calls time on the rest of the regular season and would feature 24 of its 31 teams if the 2019-20 campaign is allowed to resume.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the regular-season schedule — which was paused March 12 as the COVID-19 pandemic brought most sports around the world to a halt — is “deemed to be completed” and that a round-robin and “play-in” qualifying round would precede a 16-team playoff.
“These are extraordinary and unprecedented times,” Bettman said. ”Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect … 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.”
The league hopes to have players at team facilities early next month under strict health and safety guidelines, hold training camps sometime after July 1 and begin playing games by early August.
“It’s been an important day for sports and for the NHL in this incredibly unique, difficult and trying time,” Bettman said on a video conference call with reporters following the announcement. ”We hope that this is a step back towards normalcy.”
Tuesday’s news was just that, but also doesn’t guarantee a return to action.
The NHL still has plenty of work to do, including receiving the go-ahead from government and health officials, determining timing, the location of hub cities and testing procedures and ensuring the safety of everyone involved.
“We have a long road in front of us,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “We’re going to keep working hard at it and listening to our medical advisers and making the decisions that are in the best interests of our players and our club staff members and our fans.
“But hopefully, today is a sign of good things to come.”
The 24-team plan — which includes every Canadian franchise, save for 30th-ranked Ottawa — would see the top-4 clubs from both the Eastern and Western Conference play two mini round-robin tournaments to determine seeding for the playoffs in a pair of yet-to-be-determined hub cities.
The other eight teams in each conference would play best-of-five “play-in” series — No. 5 vs. No. 12, No. 6 vs. No. 11, No. 7 vs. No. 10, and No. 8 vs. No. 9 — to round out the 16 clubs left standing in the playoffs.
The first- and second-round post-season matchups could be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series, but the conference finals and Stanley Cup will be best-of-seven. It also remains to be seen if teams will be put in brackets like the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament or re-seeded after each playoff round.
Bettman said resuming the season will cost “tens of millions of dollars” — not insignificant for a league that still relies heavily on gate receipts — while Daly said he expects the NHL would have to administer between 25,000 and 30,000 COVID-19 tests to players and staff from the start of teams gathering at facilities through to the end of the final.
The league is eyeing two cities to serve as hubs — 10 remain on the short list, including Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto — but Daly said the Canadian government’s current policy of requiring anyone entering the country to quarantine for 14 days would make those markets a non-starter.
“If we’re not able to really get an interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room … we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” Daly said. ”So we’re faced with having to find a solution to that. And hopefully we can.”
Under the 24-team plan, Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia would compete for the No. 1 slot in the East in a round-robin tournament, while defending Cup champion 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.
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.
Asked what all this means for the 2020-21 season, which the league wants to play in its entirety, Bettman said it might not start until after the calendar flips to the new year.
“There’s no magic to starting in October,” he said. ”Our buildings, our markets can handle it. We could start November, we could start in December, we could start the beginning in January if we had to.”
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-3 picks may not be decided until after the “play-in” is completed.
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 with 189 games remaining, and teams having played an uneven number of contests.
The Stanley 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.
“We will get through this,” Bettman said. ”And as we typically do when we come back from the challenge, we’ll come back as strong, if not stronger.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press