The NHL will end its current hiatus with 24 teams resuming play in two hub cities as early as late July, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced in a video briefing on Tuesday.
Bettman laid out a general framework of the NHL's plan, though many dates, locations and formats have yet to be finalized as the league takes a wait-and-see approach amid the coronavirus pandemic. Several points are certain, however.
The regular season has essentially been deemed complete, and the top 12 teams from each conference -- determined by points percentage when play was suspended on March 12 -- will either advance directly to the 16-team playoffs or to a play-in competition. Each conference will be placed in a yet undetermined hub city, with all competitions played in the two hub cities.
Bettman said, "Although we are anxious to get back on the ice, we will not do anything until we are assured by medical professionals and the relevant government authorities that it is safe and prudent to do so."
The top four teams in each conference are guaranteed playoff spots, and they will play a round-robin competition to determine seeding. Meanwhile, teams ranked 5th through 12th in each conference will face off in a best-of-five series for the final four spots in each conference's playoffs.
In the Eastern Conference, that would mean the Boston Bruins (ranked first), Tampa Bay Lightning (second), Washington Capitals (third) and Philadelphia Flyers (fourth) will receive playoff spots, with round-robin play to determine seeding. The next eight East teams will play in best-of-five series, with the matchups as follows:
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
No. 8 Toronto Blue Jackets vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
In the West, the St. Louis Blues (first), Colorado Avalanche (second), Vegas Golden Knights (third) and Dallas Stars (fourth) have locked in playoff spots, with round-robin play to determine seeding. The next eight West teams will play best-of-five series, with these matchups:
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets
Once the field has been trimmed to 16 teams, the playoffs will proceed mostly as normal, but with some potential changes.
Bettman said the playoffs could re-seed teams after each round (with the highest remaining seed playing the lowest remaining seed) or play a bracket format, with players preferring the former. Additionally, the first two rounds of the 16-team playoffs could be best-of-five series instead of best-of-seven, with a decision to be made later.
As to when or where action will begin, the league is remaining flexible. Clubs are expected to return to home facilities for voluntary, small-group training in early June, but training camps cannot begin until at least July 1. With at least a few weeks of training camp expected, that would put the first games in late July at the earliest.
The hub cities have also yet to be determined, although there are 10 finalists, including three in Canada: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
Each hub city will have secure arenas, practice facilities, hotels and local transportation for players, coaches and essential staffs. Teams will be limited to a staff of just 50 members in each hub city, and fewer will be permitted in event areas. Each hub city will have a comprehensive system of coronavirus testing set up before any play resumes.
Meanwhile, the league's bottom seven teams -- the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils -- will not return to play. They will be placed in the draft lottery, which will also include the eight teams that are eliminated during the best-of-five qualifying round for the playoffs.
The lottery will feature two phases, with the first taking place before the qualifying round. If the top three picks are all awarded to bottom-seven teams, the second phase of the lottery won't take place, and all remaining teams will be seeded in reverse order of the regular-season standings.
--Field Level Media