The NHL ended its regular season and finalized a plan for 24 teams to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs later this summer when hockey is allowed to resume.
The league and players’ association agreed to the restart plan this week, making the NHL the first of the “big four” North American sports leagues to formalize some details of how its sport will resume during the coronavirus pandemic.
Official restart dates and the two hub cities have not been decided. In a live televised announcement, commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will hold off on those decisions to ensure they make the best decision given public health information at the time. But the third phase of the league’s reopening, in which teams would return for training camp, will not start earlier than July 1.
“There’s a reason that we’re not giving you dates now, because anyone who gives you a date is guessing,” Bettman later told reporters. “And we think we’d rather take a more holistic approach to doing this.”
Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in their hub city. The NHL will arrange “secure” arenas, practice facilities, hotels and modes of transportation, and COVID-19 testing will be conducted every day.
The 10 markets under consideration to be hub cities are Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Pittsburgh; Toronto; and Vancouver. The hub cities, which might be selected in the next three to four weeks, will each host one conference.
In the playoff format, the top four teams from each conference based on point percentage will play a round-robin tournament to determine their seeding. That means the Washington Capitals will face the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers to decide what playoff seed they will receive.
The fifth-through-12th ranked teams in each conference will play a best-of-five series in a knockout round — No. 5 versus No. 12, No. 6 versus No. 11 and so on — to determine who will advance to face the top four teams. The NHL has not decided whether it will be a locked-in bracket or whether they will reseed the opponents in each round; Bettman said the league prefers a bracket, while the players are more in favor of reseeding.
From there, it will proceed as the Stanley Cup Playoffs traditionally do, but with some potential modifications. Depending on the time available later this summer, the NHL may choose to make the first and second rounds best-of-five series rather than best-of-seven. But the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will remain best-of-seven.
The round robin for the top teams was installed as a way to give those teams meaningful hockey to play while waiting for the qualifying round to be completed.
“The theory is, we wanted those four teams not to be disadvantaged by the bye but not have a tremendous amount at risk,” Bettman told NBC Sports Network, “because they did qualify with the best records in the regular season to the point at which it was played.”
And one player or employee contracting COVID-19 would not halt everything right away, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
“Obviously we can’t be in the situation where we have an outbreak, and that will affect our ability to continue playing,” Daly said. “But a single positive test or isolated positive tests throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.”
Bettman said the league is prepared to delay the start of the 2020-21 season by “a couple of months” to provide enough time off after the season ends, but the NHL believes it will fit in a normal 82-game season next year.
The seven teams that did not qualify for the playoffs — Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo — were automatically entered into a modified version of the draft lottery. (Ottawa owns the Sharks’ first-round pick, as well.) The draft will be held after the season rather than its original date in June.
The regular season is officially over for record-keeping purposes — meaning Alex Ovechkin earned a record ninth Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for leading the league in goals. Ovechkin scored 48 goals in 2019-20, tying with Boston’s David Pastrnak.
The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division for the fifth year in a row with a record of 41-20-8 (90 points), one point ahead of the Flyers.
The Eastern Conference qualifying round matchups will be Pittsburgh vs. Montreal, Carolina vs. the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders vs. Florida and Toronto vs. Columbus. In the Western Conference, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas will play a round robin and the other matchups will be Edmonton vs. Chicago, Nashville vs. Arizona, Vancouver vs. Minnesota and Calgary vs. Winnipeg.
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