By Sally Fahey
The NHL today announced its Return to Play Plan with the Stanley Cup Playoffs that will include 24 teams.
The tournament will begin with a 16-team, eight-series Qualifying Round and a round-robin competition among the top four teams in each conference to determine seeding for the First Round.
The NHL paused the regular season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and it will not be completed. The 12 qualifying teams from the Eastern and Western conferences were determined by points percentage as of that date. Seven teams did not qualify.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said in announcing the Return to Play Plan. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.
“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible. And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.”
The format for the playoffs was determined in meetings of the Return to Play Committee, which included executives from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, and five players: Flyers right wing James van Riemsdyk (above), Ottawa Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele and Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares.
The qualifying round and round-robin will be held at two hub cities to be identified — one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams and one for the 12 Western Conference teams – and begin at a date to be determined. Candidates for the hub cities include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
The Commissioner said the decision on the hub cities and when the Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations. A comprehensive system for testing will be in place in each hub city. Each team will be permitted to travel a maximum of 50 personnel, including players, coaches and staff, to its hub city.
“Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall,” Commissioner Bettman said. “At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of the players.”
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins (44-14-12, 100 points), Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, 92 points), Capitals (41-20-8, 90 points) and (41-21-7, 89 points) will each have a bye and play each other once to determine the order of the top four seeds for the first round of the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference qualifying round will have four best-of-5 series: the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 71 points); the Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, 81 points) vs. the New York Rangers (37-28-5, 79 points); the New York Islanders (35-23-10, 80 points) vs. the Florida Panthers (35-26-8, 78 points); and the Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 81 points) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, 81 points).
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues (42-19-10, 94 points), Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, 92 points), Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, 86 points) and Dallas Stars (37-24-8, 82 points) will each have a bye and play round-robin to determine their seeding order.
The Western Conference best-of-5 qualifying round series are: the Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9, 83 points) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, 72 points); the Nashville Predators (35-26-8, 78 points) vs. the Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, 74 points); the Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, 78 points) vs. the Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, 77 points); and the Calgary Flames (36-27-7, 79 points) vs. the Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, 80 points).
Seven teams did not qualify for the playoffs and their season is over: the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings. Each of them will participate in the NHL Draft Lottery, which will hold its first phase June 26.
Games in the qualifying round will be played with playoff overtime rules. The round-robin games will be played with regular-season overtime and shootout rules with ties in the standings broken by regular-season points percentage.
After the round-robins and the qualifying round, the conference-based playoffs will be continue in the two hub cities. Each of the winners of the qualifying round will advance to face one of the round-robin teams in the first round. The Return to Play Committee is discussing whether those first-round series will be set through seeding or by bracket.
The Return to Play Committee also has yet to decide the length of the first-round and second-round series, and whether the second-round series will be determined through seeding or by bracket.
Commissioner Bettman said the NHL believes the qualifying and first two rounds of the playoffs can be completed in a little more than a month.
The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will each be a best-of-7 series. The sites of the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final have yet to be determined, but they are expected to be played in one of the hub cities.
“Obviously, these are extraordinary and unprecedented times,” Commissioner Bettman said. “Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect. And I am certain that, depending on which team you root for or which team you cover, 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 of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused. And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”