NHL plans to resume with 24 teams
by Martin Merk|27 MAY 2020
The NHL could resume play in earliest two months. One of the qualifying round pairings for the Stanley Cup Playoffs – and the most popular one according to a fan poll on the NHL’s Twitter account – will be Edmonton vs. Chicago as in the picture.
photo: Perry Nelson / USA Today Sports / Reuters
Hockey in summer may be saved. While most leagues in North America, Europe and anywhere else have cancelled their season, hockey’s biggest league is ready to resume after a pause of two-and-a-half months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The regular season was officially declared over with the announcement on Tuesday and the teams will be ranked according to the points percentage to determine the 24 teams that will make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The regular season data will also count for award considerations with 85 per cent (1,082 of 1,271 games) concluded.

“We are hopeful the Return To Play Plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount. Accordingly, an essential component of the Plan is a rigorous, regular schedule of testing,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
“On the hockey side, the return-to-play format reflects the League’s extraordinary competitive balance while honoring the tradition and integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Return To Play Plan is the result of weeks of constructive dialogue with the National Hockey League Players’ Association and we are grateful for their cooperation. We also thank our consulting health experts and the local, regional and national authorities who are helping steer us through a complex set of issues.”

With comprehensive testing, no attendance and a shortened format the NHL wants to save the season and determine a Stanley Cup Champion for 2020. Here are some quick facts you should know:

Timing: In early June the NHL teams want to enter Phase 2 with players returning to their teams for voluntary, small-group trainings on and off the ice. In Phase 3 in the first half of July earliest the official training camps will be launched after guidance from medical and civil authorities. For Phase 4, the games, the timing is to be determined and will depend on the conditions of the pandemic situation. Therefore no concrete dates are set yet but according to Bettman the start is conceivable at the end of July or beginning of August. The planned length of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is two months and would thus go into September.

Next season: The NHL plans to play the next season with a full schedule but possibly a delayed start. Games will only be played in North America, planned games in Europa and China will be moved to the fall of 2021. About the timing, Bettman said: “There’s no magic to starting in October. Our buildings, our markets can handle it. We can start in November, we can start in December, we can start the beginning of January if we had to.” The NHL hopes to have fans back at the arenas in the 2020/2021 season.

Format: 24 teams – the 12 best of the Eastern and Western Conference respectively – qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the other teams the season is officially over. The top-4 teams of each conference are directly qualified for the Conference Quarter-Finals and play a round robin for the seeding. The teams ranked 5-12 will play a qualifying round in the best-of-5 format. Depending on the timing, later series will switch to a best-of-7 format latest for the Conference Finals. Below are the qualified teams and the pairings for the qualifying round in the Eastern and Western Conference respectively.
Seeding: At the moment it’s in discussion whether the NHL will use the classic, pre-determined brackets as in the past for the playoffs, or do a re-seeding after the qualifying round with the remaining teams similar to the regulations for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Venues: The Eastern and Western Conference will each be played in one hub city each where teams will play and be located in a save environment. Teams will be limited to 50 personnel with only a small number of support staff permitted to enter the event areas and no attendance.

The following 10 cities are candidates to become one of the two hub cities:
  • East: Columbus, Pittsburgh, Toronto
  • West: Chicago, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Vancouver
“We don't need to make a decision today,” Bettman said in a media conference call. “We'll probably need to make one in three to four weeks, and at that point we would be able to better evaluate how COVID-19 is in a particular place.”

It’s not guaranteed that it will be one city from the east and one from the west. Bettman: “We're not hung up on east west. For TV scheduling it may be better if we're in different time zones, but we're going to go to the places that we think are the safest and make the most sense medically at the time.”

Draft: The NHL Entry Draft will be held in a different setting and dates than usual. The draft lottery will determine the order of the first three overall selections with 15 clubs eligible. These will be the seven teams that do not resume play and the eight teams that do not advance from the qualifying rounds (or the teams that acquired their first-round picks). Detroit, Ottawa, Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo won’t resume the season same as San Jose. Ottawa previously acquired a first-round pick from San Jose in a trade. Once the first three picks are determined, the remaining clubs will be slotted in reverse order of the points percentage from the regular season.

Testing: A comprehensive system of COVID-19 testing will be in place with 25,000 to 30,000 tests expected by the NHL. This will already start in Phase 2 when players come back from small-group training.

Border issues: About the border-crossing of players between Canada and the United States, players returning from overseas and quarantine requirements, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daily said: “We have been dealing with the governments in both the United States and Canada on these travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.  The acting Director of Homeland Security in the last three days I believe signed an order that made professional athletes essential personnel and allows them to travel into the United States. We've reached an understanding with the Canadian government that players can cross the Canadian border, as well, both internationally from overseas but also from the United States so they can return to their home city without a problem. The one issue that we continue to work actively on is the mandatory federal quarantine that is in place in Canada for all people who travel into Canada, and we are having various discussions with various different departments, the Canadian government. We don't have a resolution there, but it's an ongoing dialogue for sure.”