Gary Bettman called it an “important day for sports and the NHL.” It certainly will be if the return-to-play details the commissioner outlined on Tuesday eventually come to fruition.
“We hope this is a step back toward normalcy,” Bettman said in a teleconference with the media. “We think we’ve been able to work very collaboratively with the Players’ Association.”
To resume a season halted on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bettman outlined a 24-team format based on points percentages, with the clubs divided evenly by conference into two hub cities for games.
The seventh-seeded Islanders will face the No. 10 Florida Panthers and the No. 11 Rangers will face the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-five play-in series. The top four seeds in each conference will play a round-robin series to determine the final standings and the first-round playoff matchups.
Bettman said no decision has been made on whether a playoff bracket will be used or teams will be reseeded.
There is no set date yet for the resumption of play. Bettman said proper training camps will not begin until at least July, meaning games might not resume until August. That, of course, will significantly push back the start of the 2020-21 season, but Bettman said the NHL is committed to playing it in its 82-game entirety.
“There’s no magic to starting in October,” Bettman said. “We could start in January if we had to. We’ll get through this season and we’ll make sure there’s enough of a pause between this season and next and then we’ll start up again. We prepared to delay the start of the 20-21 season.”
Bettman said the hub city sites might not be chosen for three or four weeks. Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver are the candidates.
Bettman added that each team will be allowed to bring 50 personnel — all inclusive — to a hub city.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the players will be tested daily for the coronavirus once they are in the hub cities. Bettman estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 tests could be administered before the Stanley Cup is awarded, costing “millions.”
Daly added that the NHL must avoid an illness outbreak in the hub cities.
“We’ve been in constant communication with our medical advisers,'' he said. “Their thought process is one single positive test should not necessarily shut the whole operation down.”
On Monday, the NHL and the NHLPA released a memo sent to its 31 teams setting early June as a target date for reopening team facilities to small-group workouts. Six players, without coaches, will be allowed into a team facility at one time to skate or do off-ice training.
That is Phase 2 of the NHL’s plan to return to play. Phase 3 is organized training camps and Phase 4 is the resumption of play.
Bettman also announced a multi-phase draft lottery, to start on June 26, that will include the seven teams that will not return to play as well as the eight qualifying-round losers.
As for statistics, he declared the 2019-20 NHL regular season “completed.”
Bettman said the length of the first- and second-round playoff series has not been determined yet but added that the Stanley Cup Final will be played as a best-of-seven. He mentioned the Cup Final could be played at a different, third hub city.
All of the games are expected to be played without fans in the buildings. And, quite likely, most of the media.
“From a TV standpoint, we’ll probably create an international feed for everybody,” Bettman said. “There’s not going to be a lot of people on the event floor near the players when we do this. We’ve got to keep the players safe and healthy to see this through.”
Eastern Conference seeding in Hub City 1
2. Tampa Bay
Western Conference seeding in Hub City 2
1. St. Louis