The NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26 with 24 teams in competition for the Stanley Cup.
The tournament will begin with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will include 16 teams playing eight best-of-5 series and a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine seeds for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The NHL paused the regular season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and its remaining 189 games will not be completed. The 12 qualifying teams from the Eastern and Western conferences were determined by points percentage as of that date. Seven teams did not qualify.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said when announcing the Return to Play Plan. “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.”
The format was determined in meetings of the Return to Play Committee, which included executives from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, and five players: Ottawa Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares and Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk.
The objective was to find a way to award the Stanley Cup this season.
“I certainly hope that we can. I certainly hope that is the case,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told NBCSN. “I certainly hope that all the necessary agreements, health and safety, and economic, and the rest can be finalized, so that they can take place. But I hope it is for another reason, because if we can, that would suggest that the world is beginning to return a little bit towards normal, and that’s something that everybody wants and is in everybody’s interest, and we can’t forget that.”
The qualifiers will be held at two hub cities to be identified — one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams and one for the 12 Western Conference teams — and begin at a date to be determined. Candidates for the hub cities include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
The Commissioner said the decision on the hub cities and when play will begin will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations. A comprehensive system for testing will be in place in each hub city, and each team will be permitted to travel a maximum of 50 personnel, including players, coaches and staff.
“Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall,” Commissioner Bettman said. “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.”
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins (44-14-12, .714 points percentage), Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, .657), Washington Capitals (41-20-8, .652) and Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7, .645) 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 four best-of-5 series of the qualifiers in the Eastern Conference are: the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, .623) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, .500); the Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, .596) vs. the New York Rangers (37-28-5, .564); the New York Islanders (35-23-10, .588) vs. the Florida Panthers (35-26-8, .565); and the Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, .579).
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues (42-19-10, .662), Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, .657), Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, .606) and Dallas Stars (37-24-8, .594) 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 four best-of-5 series of the qualifiers in the Western Conference are: the Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9, .585) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514); the Nashville Predators (35-26-8, .565) vs. the Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, .529); the Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, .565) vs. the Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, .558); and the Calgary Flames (36-27-7, .564) vs. the Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, .563).
“It’s great that we can play some meaningful games against the top teams in the West for seeding,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon told TSN. “… I think that’s a pretty good format, how they’re doing it. You know, there’s no perfect way, everybody had to get creative and it seems like a good place to start.”
The season is over for the seven teams that did not make the qualifiers: the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings. Each will participate in the NHL Draft Lottery, which will hold its first phase June 26.
Games in the eight best-of-5 series in the qualifiers 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.
After the qualifiers, the conference-based playoffs will continue in the two hub cities. Each of the winners of the best-of-5 series will advance to face one of the round-robin teams in the first round. All remaining series will be best-of-7 and will be determined by seeding, not by a set bracket.
Commissioner Bettman told NBCSN there is a slim possibility the final three series can be played in the home arenas of the teams that reach those rounds, but that would require a substantial change in the outlook of the pandemic. It’s most likely all games will be played in the hub cities without fans in attendance.
“It depends on what the world looks like,” the Commissioner said. “If you made me guess today, I think we’ll be in one of the two hub cities or conceivably a third city. But if things change dramatically and we have the ability to go back to the home markets, (the League will). We anticipate playing this without fans, but if at some point things change, then obviously we’d reevaluate.”
The Commissioner told NBCSN that it’s not required that the Eastern Conference teams have to play in an Eastern hub city and the Western Conference teams have to play in a Western hub city.
The two hub cities that are selected will depend on the circumstances in that city. For example, though Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver are among the cities being considered, the current edict in Canada requiring those who enter the country to be quarantined for 14 days would probably preclude one of those cities from being selected.
“We are talking to the Canadian government about it, but if we get done with training camp and we want to go to a Canadian city and to do that we have to quarantine for another 14 days, that isn’t going to work,” Commissioner Bettman said.
Training camps will open July 10 as part of Phase 3 of the Return to Play Plan, provided that medical and safety conditions allow and the League and NHLPA have reached an overall agreement on resuming play. Phase 2, which allows for limited workouts at team facilities, began June 8. Commissioner Bettman said the NHL believes the qualifiers and first two rounds of the playoffs can be completed in a little more than a month.
“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.”