NHL unveils plan to return to the ice

National Hockey League logo. Courtesy NHL.com.

The National Hockey League has a format in place to return to the ice this season.

League Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL Return to Play Plan on Tuesday afternoon, which will officially end the regular season and launch a playoff that will consist of 24 of the league’s 31 teams. A committee made up of executives from both the NHL and the NHL Players Association, plus five players including Toronto Maple Leafs star John Tavares and Ottawa Senators defenceman Ron Hainsey, put together the plan.

According to the league, the tournament will begin with a 16-team, eight-series qualifying round as well as a round-robin competition among the top four teams in each conference to determine seeding for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

No date has been set yet for the actual resumption of play, which Bettman said is subject to COVID-19 trends and guidance from state, provincial, and local public health officials.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” said Bettman. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

Bettman said the message from fans has been loud and clear.

“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,” said Bettman. “And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.”

To reduce travel, the qualifying round and first round will be played in two hub cities to be determined, one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams and one for the 12 Western Conference teams. Toronto is an Eastern Conference candidate.

Each team will be limited to having 50 people participate, including players, coaches, staff, and broadcasters. All people will be subjected to frequent COVID-19 testing.

The 24 total playoff teams, which include the Leafs, were named based on points totals on March 12, the day the NHL paused the season due to the pandemic. There will be 12 teams competing in each conference.

In the Eastern Conference, the top four teams – Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia – will get a qualifying round bye. Each of those four teams will play each other once to determine seeding for the first round.

Games in the qualifying round 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.

The qualifying round will consist of four best-of-five series in each conference, with the Leafs facing the Columbus Blue Jackets first.

The Return to Play Committee has not yet worked out the length of the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, though the conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals will be best-of-seven. All playoff series will be played in the two hub cities.

Seven teams, including the Detroit Red Wings and the Senators, did not have enough points to qualify for the tournament, thus ending their seasons. Those seven teams will participate in the NHL Draft Lottery, which is set for June 26.

The complete format can be found at the NHL’s official website.