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NHL cancels regular season, unveils plans for 24-team playoffs

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (Credit: Getty Images)

The National Hockey League has canceled its 2019-20 regular season and will go straight into an expanded 24-team playoff format if it is able to resume play amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced.

The NHL’s preliminary return-to-play plans are scheduled to feature the top 12 teams in each conference playing in a newly structured tournament, with qualifying participants determined based on every team’s points percentage at the time the season was postponed in mid-March. At the time, there were 189 games remaining in the regular season.

It means the current campaign is over for the league’s bottom seven teams: Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres. They are automatically entered into the NHL Draft Lottery.

Traditionally, 16 teams make the postseason. In each 12-team conference in the new format, the top four teams will receive byes to the first round of the playoffs and play each other for seeding in a mini round-robin format, in part to help keep the players sharp while awaiting their tournament opponents. The remaining eight teams will play in a best-of-five “play-in” series to advance to the first round.

The planned playoff structure makes the NHL the first of the major American team sports properties to announce any sort of specific competitive structure for resuming play amid the public health crisis.

“I think it’s been an important day for sports and for the NHL in this incredibly unique, difficult, and trying time,” Bettman said. “Obviously everything we’re focused on starts with health and safety and people’s well‑being, but we think we’ve been able to work very collaboratively with the NHL Players’ Association and the players to come up with a framework that is fair and has integrity and should result in a terrific competitive playoffs and ultimately the awarding of the best trophy in all of sports.”

In the Eastern Conference, the top four teams are the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. The top four in the Western Conference are St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Dallas Stars.

The planned postseason tournament will be played in two “hub cities” to be announced in the next three or four weeks, one for each conference. Ten cities, all existing league markets, are in the running for playoff games without spectators: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.

Las Vegas is considered a front-runner to become one of the hub cities, while it is also possible a city located geographically in the west could play host to playoffs for the Eastern Conference. Two US cities are also expected to be chosen due to the complexities of travel over the US-Canadian border as well as stricter coronavirus restrictions within Canada, though three Canadian markets remain among consideration.

The hub sites will have secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation, and there would be strict Covid-19 testing and protocols at each site. Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in the hub city, with only a small number of support staff permitted to enter the event areas.

The plans are all provisional, however, due to the complexities of the Covid-19 pandemic, when and how players can return to training in their local markets, ongoing testing of players in the coming weeks, and a final agreement needed between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.

It remains unclear when the postseason will begin and when the Stanley Cup Finals will take place. Bettman says he does not anticipate training camps opening “before the first half of July”, meaning the season could start in August and the postseason may take place in September.

This could mean that US broadcast partner NBC may have a clash between the Stanley Cup Finals and the start of the new National Football League season, assuming that league begins on its normal timetable as intended.

It may also mean that the 2020-21 NHL season – which is still planned to be held in full – could start in January 2021, rather than December as has been previously suggested. This itself could mean eight or nine months without action for non-playoff teams.

“We’re going to be playing over the summer this year, so the answer is we’ll get through this season and we’ll make sure there’s enough of a pause between the end of this season and next, and then we’ll start up again,” Bettman said.

According to ESPN, the majority of play-in games will likely be aired on local regional sports networks as a means to satisfy contractual requirements that have not yet been met due to the cancellation of the 2019-20 regular season.

Many other details are still to be worked out, including whether the first two rounds of the playoffs are best-of-five or best-of-seven games. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series, Bettman said.

Bettman’s rare live television address was broadcast on NBCSN and NHL Network in the United States as well as Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada. It was also streamed on NHL.com and across NHL social-media platforms.

“As we seek some return to normalcy, this is an important day for NHL fans,” Bettman said. “Since March 12, we’ve been hopeful and optimistic that by developing all options and alternatives, we could get to this point. I know I join sports fans everywhere when I say we cannot wait for the players to hit the ice again.”

Unions leaders were cautiously optimistic with the emerging plans.

“This is a meaningful start, I think, but it’s only a start,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told the Associated Press. “We have to make sure that we can actually implement all the things which are necessary in order to protect the health and safety of the players and all the rest of the staff.”

The NHL has already postponed the 2020 NHL Scouting Combine, which was scheduled for June 1-6 in Buffalo, New York; the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Awards, set for June 18 in Las Vegas, Nevada; and the 2020 NHL Draft, which was due to be held on June 26-27 in Montreal, Canada. It has also called off its planned regular-season games in Europe this year as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

To fill the void, the NHL created a players-only esports tournament, among many other fan-engagement initiatives.