The NHL is zeroing in on a return-to-play plan that would skip the remainder of the regular season and open with a 24-team playoff format played out in two hub cities without fans in the stands. That would freeze out the Ducks and the Kings, who ranked 27th and 28th, respectively, among the league’s 31 teams when Commissioner Gary Bettman paused the season on March 12.
The top four teams in the West and the East based on points percentage would play three games against each other within their respective conferences to recalculate each team’s playoff seeding. Teams ranked fifth through 12th would play a best-of-five playoff round, with 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 within each conference.
Details of the probable plan were disclosed by people familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak publicly about them.
The four winners would face the top four teams in a best-of-seven round. All subsequent rounds would be best-of-seven. The Stanley Cup Final would take place in early to mid-September, delaying the start of the 2020-21 season.
Expanding the playoff field from 16 teams to 24 would open berths for the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, who play in major U.S. markets, and for the Montreal Canadiens. Those three teams — Original Six franchises with large fan bases — were not holding playoff positions when the season was halted.
Involving teams from league strongholds could help boost league revenues through TV deals and merchandising, an essential consideration for a league that depends more heavily on gate revenues than the NBA, NFL, or Major League Baseball and isn’t likely to be raking in more ticket revenue.
The NHL is expected to fall more than $1 billion short of its projection of $5 billion in revenues. Resuming play could generate about $450 million.
Many key details of the return-to-play plan have not been solidified and the NHL Players’ Assn. has not given its feedback to the league. The union’s executive board began voting late Thursday. One scenario envisions players gradually resuming workouts in small groups at team facilities next week and training camps opening during the last week of June. Camps would last three weeks, putting the start of the playoffs at mid- to late July.
Bettman has previously said he’s intent on completing this season and awarding the Cup and is willing to stage games through the summer in order to accomplish that. He has said next season could be played in full if it starts later. For that to happen, days off and breaks would have to be condensed.
About 85% of the regular-season schedule was completed when Bettman suspended play in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Players and team staff members have been under a stay-at-home advisory since then. Those who are not from the United States or Canada have been allowed to self-isolate in their homelands, which could pose problems depending on the travel and immigration restrictions in place when they want to return to their NHL home cities.
Many significant issues of the plan remain to be decided, including the protocol for testing for the coronavirus and what would happen if a player or team employee tests positive. It’s also unclear if players would be in a “bubble” limited to the competition rink, hotel, and practice rink, and whether their families would be allowed to join them in whatever degree of isolation is determined to be safe.
The hub cities have not been announced, and as many as six or seven sites are believed to still be under consideration. Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton have made bids to be host cities in Canada; it’s expected the NHL will have one Canadian hub in deference to its Canadian heritage and because those cities have a large number of rinks available for games and practices as well as enough hotel rooms to house everyone.
Las Vegas has been mentioned as a front-runner to host games in the U.S., but Columbus, Ohio, and St. Paul, Minn., also offer rinks and amenities that would be suitable.
The play-in round matchups would be Edmonton-Chicago, Nashville-Arizona, Vancouver-Minnesota and Calgary-Winnipeg in the West. In the East, the matchups would be Pittsburgh-Montreal, Carolina-Rangers, New York Islanders-Florida, and Toronto-Columbus.