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Bettman Announces NHL's Return to Play Format

Bruins receive automatic bye into Stanley Cup Playoffs under 24-team plan

by Eric Russo @erusso22 / - The National Hockey League took a giant step forward in its plans for a resumption of the 2019-20 season on Tuesday afternoon with the official announcement of a 24-team postseason format and the conclusion of the regular season. The league was put on pause on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the plan, which was agreed upon by both the league and the NHLPA, during a 15-minute presentation before a national television audience.

"This is an important day, especially for NHL fans," said Bettman. "Since March 12, we have been hopeful and optimistic that by developing all options and alternatives we could get to this point. I know I join sports fans everywhere when we say we cannot wait for our players to hit the ice again.

"And I look forward to the greatest privilege of all, presenting the most storied and coveted trophy in all of sports to the captain of the 2019-20 Stanley Cup champion."

While there is still much work to be done to determine when and where the Stanley Cup Playoffs might take place, as well as how to finalize testing and health protocols, Bettman said that he believes the format that has been agreed upon is one with integrity.

"The members of the NHL's Board of Governors put aside personal preferences to approve a plan that we believe is fair for all of the teams and are our best options under the circumstances," said Bettman. "It will enable the best playoffs in all of sports to honor our history and produce a champion worthy of claiming the most-treasured trophy in all of sports."

At the same time, Bettman acknowledged that the league's main focus remains the health and safety of the players, coaches, and team staffs.

"While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety is central to all of our planning so far and will remain so," said Bettman. "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."

Where the Bruins fit in

The Bruins, who finished the 2019-20 regular season as the NHL's top seed (44-14-12, 100 points, .714 points percentage), have earned an automatic berth into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia are the other teams that have earned automatic berths in the Eastern Conference.

The four teams will play a round robin to determine final seeding for the first round. The games will be played with regular-season and shootout rules.

Here is a closer look at the return-to-play format, as outlined by Bettman:

Phase 2 | Voluntary Workouts

On Monday, the league announced the framework that teams will have to abide by during Phase 2 of its transition out of the "self-quarantine" period that began on March 12. The NHL advised its clubs in a lengthy 20-plus page memo how they should operate in this next phase, which can begin as soon as health and government officials from each individual jurisdiction give their approval. With many cities and states have already having approved a return to the ice, the league hopes Phase 2 can begin as early as June 1. 

The memo laid out a number of restrictions, as well as strict guidelines for players and staff, all of which can be found here.

Phase 3 | Training Camp 

Official training camps will not begin before the first half of July.

Phase 4 | Resumption of Play

Play will resume in two hub cities (one each for the Eastern and Western Conference) and will likely last from mid-summer through early fall. Exact dates will be determined once the league is assured it is appropriate to do so.

  • Hub cities under consideration: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Vancouver.

A comprehensive system of testing will be in place. Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly estimated that 25-30,000 would be needed.

Teams will be allowed a maximum of 50 personnel in the hub city and a very limited number of support staff will be allowed around the team at event level.

As stated above, the top four teams in each conference have earned automatic byes into the first round. The remaining eight teams will play best-of-five qualifying series to determine who moves on to play the top four seeds. Regular-season points percentage was used for seeding.

  • Hub City 1 (Eastern Conference): Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina, N.Y. Islanders, Toronto, Columbus, Florida, N.Y. Rangers, Montreal.
    • Byes: Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia.
    • Play-In Matchups: Pittsburgh vs. Montreal; Carolina vs. N.Y. Rangers; N.Y. Islanders vs. Florida; Toronto vs. Columbus.
  • Hub City 2 (Western Conference): St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas, Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Arizona, Chicago.
    • Byes: St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas.
    • Play-In Matchups: Edmonton vs. Chicago; Nashville vs. Arizona; Vancouver vs. Minnesota; Calgary vs. Winnipeg.

The 2019-20 is officially over for Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Buffalo, and New Jersey.

Whether the playoffs will be based on seeding or a bracket format is still to be determined, as is whether or not the first and second rounds will be best-of-five or best-of-seven.

The Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series and are expected to be played in one of the two hub cities.

Next Season 

Bettman indicated that the NHL has every intention of playing a full 2020-21 campaign, which could begin as early as November or as late as January based on how long it takes to complete this season's playoffs and how much of an offseason is required.

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