By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NHL and NHLPA are making progress on a playoff format that would indeed include 24 teams if and when the league returns from its COVID-19 pause, according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun.
I’m told the proposed 24-team format doesn’t go straight to the playoffs but involves games in some form before-hand. That would be something the players would have pushed for. Again, let me stress that both sides on the committee as of Sunday morning still had work to do on the format so it may yet change again. But there’s a clear sense that both sides are closer on what a season resumption may look like. Once the Return to Play committee finally agrees to a format (assuming it eventually does), the NHLPA’s executive board (31 player reps) would need to vote on it for approval.
The biggest change here, if this is the final decision made by the sides before its vote, is the inclusion of some form of non-playoff games before beginning a 24-team playoff. This certainly beats the hell out of having some intrasquad scrimmages (just ask Brad Marchand's hand how that went) and glorified practices and then going right to the most intense competition in sports.
But if the league is indeed moving ahead with a 24-team playoff, it feels safe to assume that these games are going to be more "warm-up" than anything else, as including four extra playoff teams would assume they've decided that adding them to the playoff field is easier than unclogging the logjam around wild card spots in both the East and West with some extra regular-season games.
The exact structure of a 24-team playoff format is currently unknown, though there are several ideas that have been bandied about in recent days and weeks. Over the weekend, sources indicated to 98.5 The Sports Hub that one idea that's gained traction is a seeding format that would mirror the first round of the "March Madness" tournament, with the No. 5 team playing the No. 12, No. 6 playing the No. 11, No. 7 playing the No. 10, and No. 8 squaring off with the No. 9 in a mini-series for qualification. It's believed that the top four teams in each conference would play a tournament for seeding (making it a non-elimination tourney) while the 5-through-12 group battled for playoff qualification.
A source also told 98.5 The Sports Hub that July 1 has emerged as a potential return date of interest to the league.
Similar to the MLB's plans of a Fourth of July return (Patriot as hell), hockey returning to the world on July 1 would be a real treat for those in Hockey's Homeland, as July 1 is Canada Day. But that date does seems rather ambitious if the NHL does not move into Phase 2 of its return-to-play plan within the next week.
Phase 2 for the NHL would allow players to come out of the self-quarantine they've been in for two months now and return to practice facilities for small-group, unorganized skates. (This is similar to what the NBA has started, with four players and one staffer allowed on the practice court at a time.) Phase 3 would be a two-to-three week training camp with the intentions of a ramp-up towards a return to play. Phase 4, of course, would be a return to game action.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has remained confident that the league will not cancel the 2019-20 season, which paused on Mar. 12 with about 85 percent of its season finished, and is even willing to delay the start of the 2020-21 season if it means crowning a 2020 Stanley Cup champion.