NHL commissioner Gary Bettman held a virtual news conference today to officially announce the NHL’s Return to Play plan.
And while nothing is quite set in stone, Bettman laid out as clear a road map as we’ve seen thus far in terms of what the resumption of hockey will look like.
The regular season is officially toast
First things first: the regular season has officially been declared complete, so any games that happen from here on out will either be round-robin games by the top seeds or playoff (and play-in) games.
Similar to state governments across the United States, the NHL is using a phased approach as it hopes to ease back into action.
Phase 2 is expected to begin in early June, and it would see teams allowed to have small-group, voluntary training. Phase 3 is a full training camp, which Bettman said he didn’t see happening before the first half of July.
Hub cities and limits on personnel
Phase 4 is the return of hockey, with the 24-team playoff format officially unveiled.
The games will take place in 2 hub cities, one for each conference. The hub cities are to be chosen from a list of 10 finalists: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver.
Those locations will likely be nailed down in the next couple of weeks, but could always change depending on how the virus is being dealt with at each location.
Interestingly, teams will only be allowed to have 50 personnel (players included, it seems) in the hub city; given a roster size of 23 plus coaches, that’s only a handful of trainers, communications staff, etc.
Playoff match-ups and round robin seeding
Bettman confirmed the round robin games between the top 4 seeds in conference: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Las Vegas, and Dallas in the West.
Notably, the round robin games are said to be “played for first round seeding,” but it doesn’t specify how the seeding is going to work.
It appears at first blush to just be a regular points system, which would kind of screw the Bruins, given how far ahead they were in the race for the #1 seed. Still, to be determined.
The play-in rounds are going to be best-of-5 series. The league also left open the possibility of having the first and second rounds be something other than best-of-7 as well, but doesn’t have set plans yet.
My guess would be that if things get started later than the league had hoped, it may be forced to make either the first or both rounds shorter.
How is the seeding going to work?
One big question that remains unanswered is how the first-round match-ups are going to work.
Originally, it appeared that the league was going to have a bracketed/locked-in type format, where, for example, the #1 seed in the East would play the winner of the #8/#9 Toronto vs. Columbus match-up.
However, it appears that may not be the case anymore. The league’s official position is that “individual First Round series matchups remain to be determined.”
The league could decide to re-seed and do a normal #1 through #8, or could elect to keep the bracketed, divisional-style in place.
What are the NHL playoff play-in round match-ups?
In the East:
- #5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens
- #6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers
- #7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers
- #8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets
In the West:
- #5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks
- #6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes
- #7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild
- #8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets
I am still confused. Please help.
I don’t blame you! Let’s do the main takeaways:
- Training camp won’t start until July 1 at the earliest. Actual game play likely wouldn’t begin until August at the earliest.
- 2 hub cities will be used, with those cities to be determined.
- The play-in round will be best-of-5 series; it’s possible that the first and second rounds could be best-of-5 as well.
- The round robin games will impact playoff seeding, though it remains to be determined how that will work.
- The playoff format is to be determined as well. The league is weighing a re-seed with a normal #1 through #8 format, or sticking with a division/bracket format.
So there you have it! A concrete plan, or as concrete as a plan can be during COVID-19.
Regular testing will be a requirement in this plan, and any part of it could be upended if there’s a spike in cases or if there continues to be a shortage of testing supplies.
At this point, however, it looks like you should keep some evenings available in August. It’s not like we’ll have much else to do!