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What the NHL's 24-Team Return to Play Format Means for the Canes

Canes will face Rangers in best-of-five Qualifying Round if and when NHL can return to play

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes /

We don't know when. We don't know where. But, we at least now know how the National Hockey League intends to return to play and what it will look like when it does.

And the Carolina Hurricanes will be involved.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the league's 24-team return to play plan, in addition to the four-phased transition protocol and the format for the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery on Tuesday evening, making official much of what had been reported and clarifying some of the finer details of the plan.

So, what does it all mean? And, how does it affect the Canes?

Before we dive in, it's important to note that a return to play is not guaranteed; this is all contingent upon receiving medical clearance to proceed. COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations will all factor into decision making moving forward.

But, a plan is officially in place. Based on what the league announced, here's what we know.

The 2019-20 regular season is over.

On March 12, the NHL "paused" the regular season with the hope of resuming it at a later date. That is no longer a viable option, so "for the purposes of nomenclature, record keeping and NHL awards," as Bettman announced, the 2019-20 season is deemed completed through the games of March 11.

At the time of the pause, the Canes had completed 83 percent of their schedule (68 of 82 games). The remaining games, included among the 189 games originally on the league's schedule from March 12-April 4, will not be played. The Canes finish the regular season with a 38-25-5 record and 81 points.

Sebastian Aho finishes the regular season as the team leader in goals (38) and points (66), while Teuvo Teravainen paced the team in assists (48).

The NHL will return to play with 24 teams.

If and when the NHL can resume play, it will do so in two hub cities with 24 teams - the top 12 teams in each conference, ranked by points percentage. With a points percentage of .596, the Hurricanes are the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Hurricanes (6th seed) will face off with the New York Rangers (11th seed) in the Qualifying Round.

The top four teams in each conference will play a round robin to determine seeding in the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Regular-season overtime and shootout rules apply, and ties in standings will be broken by regular-season points percentage. 

The remaining eight teams in each conference will go head-to-head in best-of-five series (playoff overtime rules apply) to advance to the First Round.

Video: "We're fine with the way that it's going to go."

Playoffs will then continue in a conference-based format, and re-seeding will take place following each round to ensure the top remaining seed faces the lowest remaining seed and so on and so forth. The First Round, Second Round, Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final will all play out in traditional best-of-seven series.

When will the playoffs take place?

Even with framework in place, there's a lot we still don't know. The *when* of it all is one of those things. What we do know is that the league has a four-phased return to play protocol.

Phase 1 - teams self-isolating as much as possible - has been active since the pause began. Phase 2, during which players will be permitted to return to home facilities for voluntary, small-group on- and off-ice workouts, begins on Monday, June 8.


Phase 3 marks the beginning of formal training camps, set to open on July 10.

Finally, Phase 4 ushers in the return of hockey in the 24-team format. Timing and hub cities are still to be determined, but don't expect to see this happen until early August.

There are currently 10 cities in the mix to serve as one of the two hub cities.

Raleigh did not make the cut for the short list of potential hub cities, a collection of which are scattered across North America. Each conference will be assigned to a hub city, where secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and transportation will be provided. Which two metropolitan areas will play host to the NHL's return is a decision that will have to be finalized in the coming month or so.

So, the Hurricanes are in the playoffs?

Yes? Sort of? Maybe? Not yet? Just how exactly the Qualifying Round is, well, qualified, is somewhat unclear at this point. The regular season is over, but teams that don't advance to the First Round could still win the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

How? Well …

The 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will feature 15 teams.

Though the explanation caused Bettman to joke that the format was "a bit complicated," the 2020 Draft Lottery, in its basic execution and structure, is somewhat familiar. Three draws will determine the first three overall picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, and the 15 teams not participating in at least the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will have a chance to move up in draft order.


The 15 teams involved will include the seven teams not returning to play plus the eight losing teams from the Qualifying Round.

So, 16 teams currently have a chance to win either the Stanley Cup or the first overall pick?

Right now, yes, and the Canes are one of them. That's why I'm not sure you can truly call the Qualifying Round part of the playoffs.

Maybe that's GIF vs. Jif, but it's important for record keeping. And, the players who have performance-based bonuses built into their contracts? They're going to want some clarification on what exactly the Qualifying Round is, too.

The 2020 NHL Draft Lottery - the first part of it, at least - will be held on Friday, June 26.

That's the one date in all of this that's been established. If necessary, a second part of the Draft Lottery will take place in between the Qualifying Round and First Round. That is, if any of the three drawings are won by any of the eight teams in the Qualifying Round (denoted currently as Teams A-H), a second phase of the lottery will be necessary.

This is where it gets "a bit complicated." While odds in the first phase of the lottery are consistent with years past, say one of Teams A-H wins one of the drawings. Then, in the second lottery phase, all eight eliminated teams would have a 12.5 percent chance of winning that placeholder spot.

Once the drawings are completed, the draft order will be set in inverse order of points percentage.

That's a lot.

It is, and there are still a lot of questions to be answered and logistics to finalize in order to make this return to play plan a reality.

And, most importantly, it all hinges on an OK from trusted medical professionals and government authorities. There is a possibility we never get to Phase 4.

But, in the hopeful case we have NHL hockey back in our lives within the next two months or so, this is what it will look like. We have some finality with the 2019-20 regular season, and we know there is a plan in place for the immediate future.

That, in itself, is something worth cheering about.

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