NHL Announces Plans for 24-Team Playoff

Courtesty of Hendrik SeisProfessional sports may be coming back, but due to COVID-19 restrictions there are no fans in attendance.

The NHL announced May 26 it will forego the rest of the regular season and advance to an altered playoff structure. The Chicago Blackhawks will participate in the altered playoff tournament and Chicago is one of the cities being considered to host many of the games.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the safety of players and coaches is paramount but the public demand for hockey was too much to deny.

“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,” Bettman said via a video call on the NHL’s statement. “And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.”

The plan is to move forward with a 24-team playoff format, but no plans are guaranteed until the NHL gets clearance from medical professionals and government authorities that it is “safe and prudent” to play hockey. The NHL also said it anticipates playing without fans in attendance.

The Return to Play Committee is behind the decision to resume play and designed the structure of this year’s playoffs. The committee is made up of executives from the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association and five NHL players.

The 24 teams that made the playoffs are the top 12 teams in each conference decided by their points percentage at March 12, the time of the stoppage of play. The seven teams who didn’t make the playoffs will be in the NHL Draft Lottery which is set to get under way June 26.

For the 24 postseason teams, the plan for returning to play is broken into four phases. The first phase was simply announcing the general plan and setting things in motion. 

The second phase consists of clubs returning to voluntary, small group workouts at their home facilities. The NHL announced teams will be allowed to open their training facilities to hold individualized training activities starting June 8. These will be limited to six players and a limited staff, according to an NHL press release June 5. 

Phase three is a formal training camp for teams. The timeline for this will be based on advice from medical and government personnel and won’t be earlier than July 10.

“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.”

Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner

The fourth and final phase of the plan consists of the round-robins, qualifying rounds and Stanley Cup Playoffs. The games will be played in “hub cities” — one for each conference. 

These locations have yet to be announced, but they will be decided based on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations. Chicago is reportedly among the cities in the running for the Western Conference hub city, according to the NHL. While the exact timing is still up in the air, Bettman said in his video conference the plan is to play “over the summer and into the early fall.”

Each team is expected to only be allowed to bring a maximum of 50 people, including players, coaches and staff. There is also the possibility of tighter restrictions on how many people are allowed in the arena or near the ice, according to Bettman.

As for the layout of the tournament, the top four teams in each conference at the time of the play stoppage will earn a bye in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They will play each other once to determine the order of the top four seeds. These round-robin games are purely for seeding purposes and no teams will be eliminated.

The qualifying round will consist of four, best-of-five series of the other eight playoff-eligible teams in each conference. The winners of these series will advance to play the teams from the round-robin, while the losers will be eliminated from the playoffs. 

In the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks were the last team to secure a spot in the qualifying round and they will play the Edmonton Oilers in their best-of-five series.

The matchup between the winners of the qualifying rounds and the round-robin teams is being called “Round 1” by the Return to Play Committee. The entirety of the Stanley Cup Playoffs — which doesn’t include the qualifying round or the seeding round-robin — will be best-of-7 rounds, according to an NHL press release June 4.

Bettman said the NHL believes it can complete the qualifying rounds and first two rounds of the playoffs in a little over a month.

At the end of his video announcement, Bettman acknowledged there was no perfect way to design a playoff after the season was cut short. However, he said the expansion of the playoff format will still be able to determine the best team this season.

“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,” Bettman said via his video call. “And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”

An NHL spokesperson said Bettman declined to comment further and referred The Phoenix to the press releases given by the NHL.

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