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Return to Play

NHL plans to return with 24 teams competing for Stanley Cup

Best-of-5 series, round-robin games begin in two hub cities

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

NHL Return to Play Plan

Return to Play Plan for 2019-20 NHL Season

Commissioner Gary Bettman announces 24-team return to play format for the resumption of 2019-20 NHL season

  • 15:22 •

The NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26 with 24 teams in competition for the Stanley Cup.

The tournament began Aug .1 with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which include 16 teams paired in eight best-of-5 series and a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine seeds for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The NHL paused the regular season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and its remaining 189 games were not be completed. The 12 qualifying teams from the Eastern and Western conferences were determined by points percentage as of that date. Seven teams did not qualify.

"I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount," Commissioner Gary Bettman said when announcing the Return to Play Plan. "While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.

"Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible. And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion."

The format was determined in meetings of the Return to Play Committee, which included executives from the NHL and NHL Players' Association, and five players: Ottawa Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares and Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk.

The qualifiers are being held at two hub cities: the 12 Eastern Conference teams are in Toronto, and the 12 Western Conference teams are in Edmonton, also the site of the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

A comprehensive system for testing is in place in each hub city, and each team was permitted to travel a maximum of 52 personnel, including players, coaches and staff.

"Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall," Commissioner Bettman said in May.

Video: Elliotte Friedman on NHL Tonight

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins (44-14-12, .714 points percentage), Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6, .657), Washington Capitals (41-20-8, .652) and Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7, .645) each have a bye and play each other once to determine the order of the top four seeds for the first round of the playoffs.

The four best-of-5 series of the qualifiers in the Eastern Conference are: the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, .623) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, .500); the Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, .596) vs. the New York Rangers (37-28-5, .564); the New York Islanders (35-23-10, .588) vs. the Florida Panthers (35-26-8, .565); and the Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, .579).

In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues (42-19-10, .662), Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, .657), Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, .606) and Dallas Stars (37-24-8, .594) each have a bye and play each other once to determine the order of the top four seeds for the first round of the playoffs.

The four best-of-5 series of the qualifiers in the Western Conference are: the Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9, .585) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514); the Nashville Predators (35-26-8, .565) vs. the Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, .529); the Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6, .565) vs. the Minnesota Wild (35-27-7, .558); and the Calgary Flames (36-27-7, .564) vs. the Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6, .563).

"It's great that we can play some meaningful games against the top teams in the West for seeding," Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon told TSN. "... I think that's a pretty good format, how they're doing it. You know, there's no perfect way, everybody had to get creative and it seems like a good place to start."

The season is over for the seven teams that did not make the Qualifiers: the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings.

Games in the eight best-of-5 series in the Qualifiers will be played with playoff overtime rules. The round-robin games will be played with regular-season overtime and shootout rules with ties in the standings broken by regular-season points percentage.

After the Qualifiers, the conference-based playoffs will continue in the two hub cities. Each of the winners of the best-of-5 series will advance to play one of the round-robin teams in the first round. All remaining series will be best-of-7 and will be determined by seeding, not by a set bracket. 

Video: The guys share their thoughts on the season starting

"Obviously, these are extraordinary and unprecedented times," Commissioner Bettman said. "Any plan for the resumption of play, by definition, cannot be perfect. And I am certain that, depending on which team you root for or which team you cover, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently.

"But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused. And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL."

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