Hockey fans, we’ve got a plan.
In one fell swoop, the National Hockey League ended weeks of speculation and unveiled what looks to be a concrete return to play plan. It involves a lot of moving parts, so we’ll break things down piece by piece.
First, the regular season as we know it is over. Whatever the standings were and whatever the stats were as of March 12 when the NHL paused its season based on the COVID-19 pandemic, those are the standings and stats. At that point, the league had played roughly 85 percent of the season. The 189 games remaining on the schedule will not be played.
A total of 24 teams will resume play. Those teams will be the top 12 teams in each conference as of the pause. The top four teams in each conference will receive an automatic berth in the first round of the playoffs, while the remaining teams will participate in a play-in tournament to determine the standings going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The four teams in each conference receiving a bye from the play-in will participate in a three-game intra-conference round robin tournament to assist in determining Round One playoff seeding.
The remaining eight teams in each conference will play in a best-of-five qualifying round to figure out who gets to go on to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is not yet known if the teams qualifying out of this tournament will be re-seeded for the playoffs or follow a bracketing system.
So, the qualifying setup is as follows:
• 5) Pittsburgh vs. 12) Montreal
• 6) Carolina vs. 11) Rangers
• 7) Islanders vs. 10) Florida
• 8) Toronto vs. 9) Columbus
• 5) Edmonton vs. 12) Chicago
• 6) Nashville vs. 11) Arizona
• 7) Vancouver vs. 10) Minnesota
• 8) Calgary vs. 9) Winnipeg
The immediate goal for the NHL is to move into Phase 2 of their return to play plan, which we discussed already. That could mean we could see small group practices as early as next week, with some serious particulars in place.
But Gary Bettman and the NHL are adamant that there are no firm dates on the calendar for Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the plan. He did indicate the NHL would not be moving into Phase 3 – the opening of training camps – until July 1 at the earliest.
There are still decisions to make pertaining to the hub cities and where these games will take place, but Bettman did reveal a list of possibilities. This include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver.
Finally, we know a little about the draft lottery. The league is angling for June 26 as the first phase, with the intention to determine the first 15 picks of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. That will be based on three to six drawings over a one or two phases. The seven teams that did not qualify for the post-season are on tap for these drawings, as are eight teams that lose in the qualifiers.
Draft lottery odds were determined based on the standings when the NHL paused in March. The Detroit Red Wings technically possess the best odds to draft first overall, but the Ottawa Senators have two shots at the drawings because they own a pick from the San Jose Sharks in the Erik Karlsson trade.
As these details crystallize and we have more information, we’ll dig deeper into the draft and the NHL’s return to play. We’ll also start talking tournaments.