Per the announcement, the 2019-20 regular season is officially over. When players do return to the ice, it'll be to compete in an exciting 24-team, conference-based playoff. And although there are still hurdles to overcome and dates to be decided on, the basic framework has been laid out.
Following training camps (which will begin no earlier than July 1), teams will compete in empty arenas located in two different hub cities. Right now, Bettman said the league has narrowed its list of potential cities to 10. At these hubs, all teams will abide by very strict COVID-19 testing.
If all goes well, a team will hoist the Stanley Cup either later in the summer or early in the fall.
"At the pause, we committed to resuming play only when appropriate and prudent," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a press release. "We are hopeful the Return To Play Plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount."
So what does all of this news mean for the Florida Panthers?
In short, it means they better clear their schedules this summer.
Finishing the regular season with a record of 35-26-8, the Panthers have earned a place in the postseason as the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference. When play resumes, they will face the seventh-seeded New York Islanders (remember them?) in the Qualifying Round of the playoffs.
Unlike later rounds, the Qualifying Round will be an abbreviated best-of-five series. A familiar foe, the last time the Panthers made the playoffs in 2016, they lost a heated series to the Islanders.
That being said, seeding doesn't really seem to matter at this point. With several months in between games, there's no such thing as momentum. All that matters is that Florida has earned a seat at the table. Along with 23 other teams, they've put themselves in position to win the Stanley Cup.
"It will be an equal playing field," Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Dale Tallon said during a media conference call on Thursday. "No one will have an advantage or an edge. When we start, everybody will be starting on the same date. It's just a matter of getting our timing down and getting our systems down.
"I think by now our players should understand what Coach Q [Joel Quenneville] is trying to do. That's the key. We have to be ready. Everyone's going to be healthier. Everyone's going to be rested. It's going to be quite a race to the finish. In a short series, anything can happen. You've got to be prepared mentally and physically."
Speaking of health, Tallon said the pause has benefitted several players in that area. Prior to what ended up as their final game of the regular season on March 9, players like Riley Stillman, Brian Boyle and Sergei Bobrovsky were all dealing with injuries. By now, they've all healed up.
"Everybody's ready to go," Tallon said. "We have nobody that will miss any time at all."
Tallon said that Bobrovsky, in particular, will play an important role for the Panthers in their quest for a Stanley Cup. After joining the team on a seven-year contract this past summer, the 31-year-old goaltender went 23-19-6 with a .900 save percentage during the regular season.
A battle-tested veteran, Bobrovsky has suited up in 34 playoff games in his career, including going 6-4-0 behind a stellar .925 save percentage during his final playoff run with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2018-19.
"He's another guy that works extremely hard," Tallon said of Bobrovsky. "He was disappointed with his season up until now. He has something to prove, and that's a good thing. I expect him to be at the top of his game. And when he's at the top of his game you have a chance to win. We're counting on him, we're relying on him, and we expect big things from him."
In addition to the team's current roster, Tallon said he's also planning on adding a few of the organization's top prospects to the playoff roster. And while the team is still waiting on some information, he mentioned forwards Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom (Florida's first-round picks in 2017 and 2016, respectively) and defenseman Brady Keeper as potential call-ups.
"I'm sure we'll have a few of our top prospects there," Tallon said. "We'll narrow it down to see how many [Quenneville] wants. We still have to wait for the league [to give] an exact number."
As for next steps, the Panthers will have plenty of time to prepare for their matchup with the Islanders. In early June, the league plans to begin "Phase 2" of its return, which will include teams returning to their home facilities for small group, voluntary, and on and off-ice training.
If all of that goes smoothly, "Phase 3" will kick off with training camps sometime in July.
So, although the tunnel may be long, there is a light at the end of it. For now, we will focus on things like logistics and testing. But, as time goes on, hockey will slowly trickle back into our lives. From returning to the ice to actually playing games, each step will be a great achievement.
In the meantime, Tallon said he's been talking to Quenneville "almost every day" and has been in contact with several players since the news of the league's return broke. There is a clear level of excitement among the organization, and everyone has begun to ramp up their preparations.
They can't step on the ice just yet, but their postseason preparations have already begun.
"The guys are excited because now you see it," Tallon said. "It's right in front of you. There was doubt before… Now we know what the deal is. You have a chance to win three games to move on and do something special. All the guys that I've spoken with can't wait to get on the ice, can't wait to get back together. They're excited about this opportunity. That's all you can ask for."