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NHL, NHLPA looking at expanded playoffs in return

The National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association are developing a 24-team, conference-based playoff that would form the the league’s return this summer from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to multiple reports.

The emerging plan would likely see the use of two hub cities that would serve as sites for the games that would be played without attending fans, with multiple games played each day. League commissioner Gary Bettman has said that as many as nine different locations for those hub spots are under consideration. 

Normally 16 teams reach the NHL playoffs. But given the very tight nature of the standings prior to the league stopping play in March due to the public health crisis, and numerous teams hovering around the cutoff for postseason qualification, a Return to Play Committee has now centered on an expanded, bracket-style playoff format. 

That format that would give byes to four top-performing teams in each conference from the abbreviated 2019-20 regular season, and place other teams in what would be considered a play-in round. The structure would then yield a traditional 16-team playoff bracket playing seven-game series that would ultimately lead to a Stanley Cup Finals.

Like other leagues working on resuming competition, the restart would also arrive with an extensive array of health and safety protocols.

That Return To Play Committee, critically, has involved officials from both the league and players’ union. 

Despite the forward momentum, there is not a signed deal to resume play as of yet, though both management and labor intend to discuss the developing proposal with their respective constituencies on May 21. Any resumption for the league would also involve a training camp-type period first to allow players time to return to game shape.

“I’m not aware of any agreement yet,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said to ESPN. “Don’t want to jump the gun on anything.”