NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tuesday that the NHL Return To Play Plan is full speed ahead and that the 24-team playoff proposal agreed upon this past Friday night, will be used and played in two hub cities to be determined amongst a list of ten finalists. Boston and TD Garden were not on the list.
Bettman did stress that he does not expect Phase 3, which is essentially training camp, to start “before the first half of July”. Given training camp will be three weeks long, the playoffs wouldn’t start until August. The league sent out a memo Monday that Phase 2, which allows NHL players to return to their team cities and begin limited workouts likely in early June. The league had paused their 2019-20 season on March 12 due to the Coronavirus outbreak in North America and around the world.
“Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall,” the Commissioner said in a late-afternoon announcement prior to doing a Zoom Call with the media. “At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of the players.”
Bettman also reiterated that the safety of the player, and team and league personnel remains paramount and that they will use whatever possible precautions, including frequent testing for everyone involved.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff, and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said. “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.”
As expected the NHL Return will consist of a 16-team, eight-series Qualifying Round, and a round-robin competition among the top four teams in each conference will take place to determine seeding for the First Round.
The 12 qualifying teams from the Eastern and Western conferences were determined by points percentage as of that date. With the league returning to the playoffs, that means the 2019-20 regular season is officially over and the Boston Bruins (44-14-12, 100 points) are the President’s Trophy winners. The Bruins, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, 92 points), Washington Capitals (41-20-8, 90 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7, 89 points) will each have a bye and play each other once to determine the order of the top four seeds for the first round of the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference qualifying round will have four best-of-5 series: the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 71 points); the Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, 81 points) vs. the New York Rangers (37-28-5, 79 points); the New York Islanders (35-23-10, 80 points) vs. the Florida Panthers (35-26-8, 78 points); and the Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 81 points) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, 81 points).
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues (42-19-10, 94 points), Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, 92 points), Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, 86 points) and Dallas Stars (37-24-8, 82 points) will each have a bye and play round-robin to determine their seeding order.
The Western Conference best-of-5 qualifying round series are: the Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9, 83 points) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, 72 points); the Nashville Predators (35-26-8, 78 points) vs. the Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, 74 points); the Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, 78 points) vs. the Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, 77 points); and the Calgary Flames (36-27-7, 79 points) vs. the Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, 80 points).
Games in the qualifying round will be played with playoff overtime rules. The round-robin games will be played with regular-season overtime and shootout rules with ties in the standings broken by regular-season points percentage.
Bettman stressed that it has not been decided if the first round will be seeded or done using brackets. The Commissioner also stressed that a number of games for the first and second round series If the latter is used, the Bruins will play the winner of the 8/9 matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ironically those are the teams the Bruins faced in the first two rounds respectively en route to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final that they lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games.
One hub city will be used for the Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Final. Both rounds will be best-of-seven series.
Seven teams did not make the cut for the playoff tournament. The Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings. Each of them will participate in the NHL Draft Lottery, which will hold its first phase June 26.
Bettman closed by expressing how excited he, the NHL and the NHLPA are to have gotten to this point on the NHL Return To Play Plan in what he called “extraordinary and unprecedented times”.
“Obviously, these are extraordinary and unprecedented times,” he said. “Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect. And I am certain that, depending on which team you root for or which team you cover, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently.
But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused. And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”