Things have moved quickly since the NHL proposed a 24-team playoff structure and put it to a vote for the NHLPA just last week. The players voted to approve the system, and by Monday, a memo was sent for the protocol for moving to Phase 2 of a four-phase plan for return.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a formal announcement on Tuesday afternoon to detail the rest of this four-phase plan and break down the playoff structure and draft lottery protocols as the NHL strives to make a return to play.
Bettman started by indicating that the most important factor in all of this is the safety and health of the players, coaches and all personnel involved with the game. Bettman added that the reason for putting together this plan is because both fans and players have expressed a desire to have the NHL return. Bettman added that all guidance in a return to play will come from civil and medical officials and that the NHL will not resume play until they are given the clearance to do so.
So now, to the details of the return to play plan.
Bettman announced that 24 teams will return to play in the NHL, 12 for each conference. The ranking of the Top 12 in each conference will be done by points percentage at the time of the pause on March 12. The remaining seven teams in the league enter the draft lottery.
With this announcement, the 2019-20 NHL regular season is officially over. Everything from here on out will qualify as a form of playoffs, with teams competing in a Round Robin tournament and qualifying round to determine the eight teams and the seeding for the first round of the playoffs and beyond.
Each conference will be assigned one hub city that can provide secure hotels, arena and practice facilities, as well as safe in-market transportation. Each team is limited to having 50 personnel travel to the hub city and only a small number of support staff members will be permitted on the event level. Comprehensive testing will need to be available in each city.
Bettman did not announce the specific hub cities and said any announcement on that, as well as any firm dates for a return, will not come until “it is appropriate and prudent and the NHL are approved to do so.” Bettman did announce 10 cities being considered as hub cities -- Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
Bettman also detailed the possible timeline for moving from Phase 1, which the league is currently in, to Phases 2, 3 and 4. The goal is for Phase 2 to begin in early June, where players can return to their team facilities for voluntary, small-group, on and off-ice training.
Phase 3 would be the move to full training camps. This will not begin prior to July 1 and Bettman added that it is likely this phase will not begin in the first half of July.
Phase 4 would be the move to the hub cities and an official return to play. The timing and sites for Phase 4 are to be determined.
The rankings for the Top 12 teams has been determined and the Round Robin and qualifying round matchups have been announced. They are as follows:
- Tampa Bay
- NY Islanders
- NY Rangers
- St. Louis
The Round Robin tournament among the Top 4 teams will determine the Top 4 seeding in the first round and games will use regular-season rules -- such as 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts to decide games -- and use tiebreakers. The qualifying round will take place at the same time and use playoff overtime rules. The qualifying round will be a best-of-five series.
The NHL and NHLPA are still deciding whether to use a bracket format or seeding. Additionally, it is still to be determined if the first and second round of the playoffs will be a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. Regardless, the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be a best-of-seven series and likely take place in one of the two hub cities. Bettman stated that the belief is that the qualifying round, first round and second round can be completed in about a month.
As for the NHL Draft lottery, it will have nothing to do with the Flyers, who bypass this process by being in the Top 4 and automatically advancing beyond the qualifying round. The seven non-resuming teams will be entered into the lottery along with eight placeholders on June 26 to determine the first three picks of the NHL Draft. If a non-resuming team is drawn for all three picks, the draft order will be set with those teams taking the top three picks and the remaining picks from 4 to 15 being ordered based on reverse points percentage from the regular season. The rest of the order would be determined by standard playoff procedures. If any placeholder team is drawn for any of the three picks, a Phase 2 redrawing will take place after the qualifying round is complete featuring the non-resuming teams and the eight eliminated teams. All teams in Phase 2 would have the same odds.
There is certainly a lot to digest from this announcement, but it seems like both a plan and a guideline of when each phase could realistically take place has been put into motion. Now it just becomes a matter of hoping that things are safe enough to proceed as this timeline moves forward.
You can watch the full announcement from Bettman below: