The NHL moved a step forward toward a resolution of the 2019-2020 season with the announcement of a 24-team Return to Play Plan today, though there are plenty of details—like a start date and locations—to be determined.
The top 24 teams will be part of the tournament, which 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 tournament is expected to be played into early fall, which likely means we’ll not see a start to the proceedings any time soon. The format was determined by the Return to Play Committee, which included executives from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, and five players.
The qualifying round and round-robin will be held at two hub cities to be identified on a date to be determined: one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams and one for the 12 Western Conference teams. Candidates for the hub cities include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver. Also to be determined: the length of the first-round and second-round series, and whether the second-round series will be determined through seeding or by bracket.
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.”
In a nationally televised announcement on NBC Sports Network, Bettman 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.
As noted, Bettman and NHL officials expect this tournament to extend into early fall; presumably this means we could see a delay to the 2020-2021 NHL season.