By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NHL became the first North American league to put forth an actual plan towards a return on Tuesday, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman detailed the league’s Return To Play plans.
Speaking in a video conference, Bettman confirmed that the 2019-20 regular season is officially over, and that the league will return with 24 teams competing in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That group of 24 will consist of the top 12 teams in each conference, sorted by point percentage at the time of the season’s pause on Mar. 11. (This means that the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and San Jose Sharks are all done for the year.)
A successful return to action would begin with the top four teams in each conference playing in a three-game, round-robin tournament for first-round seeding. That group includes the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals in the East, and the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights out West.
These games will feature regular-season overtime rules, and if a team is tied in points by the end of that three-game tournament, regular-season point percentage will be factored in as the tiebreaker. This obviously helps the Bruins and Blues, the team’s from last year’s Stanley Cup Final, who were the top teams in their conferences at the pause.
And while the top clubs in each conference battle for opening-round seeding, the teams outside of the top four in each conference will go head-to-head in a best-of-five play-in series to officially “qualify” for the 16-team postseason.
In the East, the No. 5 seed Pittsburgh Penguins will play the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens, the No. 6 seed Carolina Hurricanes will go against the No. 11 New York Rangers, the No. 7 New York Islanders will play the No. 10 Florida Panthers, and No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs will square off against the No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets. In the West, the No. 5 Edmonton Oilers will play the No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks, No. 6 Nashville Predators will play No. 11 Arizona Coyotes, No. 7 Vancouver Canucks will battle the No. 10 Minnesota Wild, and No. 8 Calgary Flames will play the No. 9 Winnipeg Jets.
Moving beyond the play-in round and round-robin tournament, Bettman confirmed the league is currently still deciding whether or not the first and second rounds will be a best-of-five or best-of-seven. The third round and the Stanley Cup Final will remain a best-of-seven, according to Bettman, and he believes the league will be able to hammer out the first two rounds of this year’s postseason in about a month’s time no matter the length.
And much like the NBA, the NHL is likely to play out their postseason in two hub cities; Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh are the American cities currently under consideration by the NHL, while Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver are the Canadian cities in the running.
Bettman’s belief is that the one city will host the Eastern Conference playoffs, while the other will host the Western Conference. Bettman also noted that it doesn’t necessarily have to be in one East and West city (there’s only three East-based hub city options compared to seven West-based options), and that their decision will be based on the happenings in each city. But speaking with NBC Sports after the conference, Bettman also noted that teams could play in home markets “if things changed dramatically,” as the league remains focused on keeping all their options open.
The NHL remains a ways away from game action, however, as Bettman confirmed that the league hopes to move to Phase 2 in early June, and that Phase 3’s training camp wouldn’t start before July 1 at the earliest.