The NHLPA executive board voted only on the conference-based “play-in” postseason format. Other return-to-play details, including safety protocols, still need to be negotiated with the league.
The proposal includes the top four teams in each conference (based on points percentage) playing one another for seeding, while the remaining 16 teams would play best-of-five series in a play-in round. The setup for the play-in round would be No. 5 seed vs. No. 12 (with the winner advancing to play the fourth seed), No. 6 vs. No. 11 (winner plays the third), No. 7 vs. No. 10 (winner plays the second) and No. 8 vs. No. 9 (winner plays the first). That would leave 16 teams to compete for the Stanley Cup, as in a typical postseason.
The Washington Capitals would be playing for seeding in the proposed round-robin scenario. The other teams receiving byes in the Eastern Conference would be Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. In the West, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas would get byes. The teams that would qualify for the “bracketed” play-in rounds are Pittsburgh, Carolina, the New York Islanders, Toronto, Columbus, Florida, the New York Rangers and Montreal in the East, and Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Arizona and Chicago in the West.
Capitals defenseman John Carlson, speaking to NBC Sports Network on Thursday, said he wasn’t a huge fan of the expanded playoff format. He thought the number of teams was too high but acknowledged that “due to logistics” the plan might make the most sense.
Center Lars Eller hadn’t seen a full return-to-play proposal Thursday but said there had been a “positive vibe” around return-to-play discussions over the past few weeks.
“I will say that, when it comes to the format, I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy. … The situation is what it is,” he said. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can, and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, appearing Monday in a digital keynote interview for Leaders Week, a sports business conference, said the league is exploring eight to nine potential venues that would be able to accommodate “a dozen or so teams in one location.” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said this week that Washington isn’t one of those venues. Bettman noted that multiple games would have to be played each day at the same sites, without fans.
Other challenges include gathering players who have left the country. Bettman said 17 percent of the league’s players are currently outside North America. More than half of the Capitals left the D.C. area since the season was suspended in mid-March amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Players are hesitant about leaving their families for an extended period. They also would be worried about the safety of their families if they are to play, then are allowed to interact with loved ones.
“I’m not worried about myself; I’m worried about the next step and those I’m potentially giving it to,” Carlson said. “I’m a healthy guy. I think I would fare okay against it. I have a family; I have kids. What is the repercussions of that?"
Eller and his wife are expecting a baby boy in August and already have a 7-year-old daughter. Eller has considered the risk he would be weighing if he wanted to interact with his newborn. At the same time, he doesn’t want to be cut off from his family for an extended period.
Safety “would have to be substantial, and I also don’t want to be in a situation where I don’t see my family for weeks at a time and be locked in a hotel room,” Eller said. “… At some point, it is not worth doing it.”
There are many hurdles to be overcome and discussions to be had, but Eller said players generally want to play. The issue, he asked, is at what cost?
“At some point, there is going to be a barrier of ... is it worth it?” Eller said. “I don’t know where the barrier is, but I think we are going to be flirting with it.”
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