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NHL ends regular season, will open with 24-team playoff at an undetermined date

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled the league's 24-team playoff format Tuesday. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The NHL on Tuesday unveiled the format under which it intends to return to play from the pause caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, ending its regular season and expanding its postseason to 24 teams, but it does not have firm dates for when the Stanley Cup playoffs would begin.

Tuesday’s announcement by Commissioner Gary Bettman does not ensure the league will return this season. The league and the NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols and other issues. But Bettman did acknowledge that a single positive test, depending on the circumstances, “should not necessarily” halt postseason play.

“Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak that will affect our ability to play,” he said. "But a single positive test, throughout a two-month tournament, should not necessarily mean an end for the tournament.”

The league would test players daily, Bettman said. The commissioner said the NHL could conduct around 25,000 to 30,000 tests when play resumes.

No return-to-play dates were announced; Bettman said the NHL could start holding games in late July or early August, but the league is staying open to change.

“There’s a reason we’re not giving you dates now,” he said. “Anyone who is giving you a date is guessing.”

Bettman said the league anticipates playing games without fans. He said he hopes fans will be back in arenas for the 2020-21 season.

Under the league’s plan, the 189 regular season games remaining when play was suspended March 12 have been canceled, and 24 teams would compete in a modified and expanded playoffs that will take place in two hub cities that have not been determined. Bettman said the league would decide within three to four weeks on the hub cities; in the running are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league would not be in a position to play in any Canadian cities without a relaxation of the country’s 14-day self-quarantine regulations.

The 24-team format would have the top four teams in each conference (based on points percentage) playing a round robin against one another to determine seeding, while the remaining 16 teams would play best-of-five series in a qualifying round to advance to the first round. The format and series lengths for the first and second rounds have yet to be determined. Conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals would be the standard best-of-seven series.

In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals would be in the round robin with the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. In the West, the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars would be in the round robin. The qualifying-round matchups in the East would be the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Montreal Canadiens; the Carolina Hurricanes vs. the New York Rangers; the New York Islanders vs. the Florida Panthers; and the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the West, it would be the Edmonton Oilers vs. the Chicago Blackhawks; the Nashville Predators vs. the Arizona Coyotes; the Vancouver Canucks vs. the Minnesota Wild; and the Calgary Flames vs. the Winnipeg Jets.

The playoff plan was proposed by the NHL’s Board of Governors and approved Friday by the NHLPA.

Bettman also outlined tentative plans for players to return to training facilities, which the league calls Phase 2 of its return-to-play plan, and formal training camps (Phase 3). Aimed for early June, Phase 2 allows for small-group, voluntary and on- and off-ice training at team facilities. The workouts will be voluntary, and just six players will be allowed at the team facility at a time. No coaches are allowed during on-ice work.

Phase 3, the formal training camps, will not begin earlier than the first half of July, and only after guidance from medical and civil authorities.

The league also announced its plans for the draft lottery, set for June 26, which is complicated by the eight additional teams in the playoffs. The first phase will consist of three drawings and be limited to the seven teams that did not qualify for the expanded postseason, with odds determined by regular season point percentage. Additionally, the eight losing teams from the qualifying round will be represented in the first phase of the draft lottery as unassigned picks.

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