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NHL unveils return to play plan, with several details to be determined

Coach Craig Berube celebrates after St. Louis beat Boston in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. The NHL revealed its plan for a modified 2020 playoff format Tuesday.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

The NHL unveiled its plan to complete the 2019-20 season, confirming a 24-team restart format that wouldn’t include the Kings or Ducks, effectively ending their seasons.

The Return to Play Plan, which received approval from the league and NHL Players’ Assn. before being announced by Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday, calls for the season to restart no sooner than July and move directly into a qualification stage for the postseason, with games set to be held at two yet-to-determined “hub” locations in NHL markets.

Bettman called the plan “fair to all of the teams, and our best option under the circumstances,” and added that games won’t restart until “the go-ahead from medical experts and the relevant government authorities is given.”

The top four teams in each conference, as decided by points percentages when the season was suspended March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will receive a bye into the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the meantime, they will play a series of round-robin games that will decide their playoff seeding. Teams seeded Nos. 5 to 12 will participate in best-of-five qualifications series to play their way into the 16-team field.

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The NHL will allow groups of up to six players to train together at team facilities as the league prepares to return from the coronavirus shutdown.

From there, several specifics of the playoff format have yet to be decided. The first and second rounds could be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series, and Bettman said the league has yet to decide whether to use a set bracket or adjust for seeding after every round. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series and played at one of the hub sites.

Regarding hub locations, Bettman said Los Angeles is one of 10 potential sites being considered. One hub city will host the Western Conference teams while the other hosts the Eastern Conference, though both hubs could be in markets from the same conference, according to Bettman, who added that each club will be limited to bringing no more than 50 club personnel to each hub location.

“We will not set dates, choose sites or begin to play until we know it is appropriate and prudent and approved to do so,” Bettman said.

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The roughly 15% of regular-season games that were remaining when the league suspended the season , including 12 games for the Kings and 11 for the Ducks, will be scrapped.

The bottom seven teams in the standings — which also include the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres — will instead turn their attention to a modified NHL draft lottery, which will be held in two phases beginning June 26 and keeps the odds of the Kings (9.5%) and Ducks (8.5%) getting the No. 1 overall pick the same.

“This is a bit complicated,” Bettman said of the new lottery system, which will require a second phase only if one of the top three picks in the draft goes to one of the eight “placeholder” spots being reserved for the eight losers of the best-of-five qualification round. “The format was adopted in order to maintain distribution of lottery-winning odds that were in place entering the 2019-20 season.”

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Many other questions remain before play can resume, including the health and safety procedures. So far, the NHL has only released its rules for “Phase 2” of its return protocol, which outlines precautionary steps required to allow players to begin training again in small groups.

Specific plans for staging a three-week training camp period (“Phase 3”), as well as the games themselves (“Phase 4”), have yet to be announced, though neither is expected to begin before July. Those phases won’t begin until the league has secured plans for a “comprehensive system of testing,” Bettman said.

Also unclear is how far the start of the 2020-21 season, which is still expected to include a full 82-game schedule for each team, will be pushed back. Normally, the NHL regular season begins in early October, but there has been speculation the 2020-21 schedule might not begin until November or December.

That archaic code about ignoring mental health in the NHL is fading away, its departure hastened by former goaltenders Kelly Hrudey and Corey Hirsch.

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Various players and executives from both the Kings and Ducks expressed interest over the last several weeks to finish their current seasons. However, when the NHLPA held a team-by-team vote to approve the general concept of the NHL’s 24-team proposal last week, neither club’s players reportedly voted down the measure.

The only teams whose players rejected the format were the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning — teams that will participate in the modified playoff structure. Those no votes were indicative of a drawn-out debate within the league over a 24-team format that failed to appease all concerns but garnered the most consensus among plans to complete the season.

“I am certain that depending on which team you root for, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently,” Bettman said. “But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance to qualify for the playoffs when the season was paused. This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion that would have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”


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