The NHL has considered multiple models for the potential resumption of play after its season was halted on March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Increasingly, though, discussion has centered on heading straight into the playoffs rather than trying to salvage some or all of the rest of the regular season, sources confirmed on Thursday. The New York Post reported the league has shifted its focus to a 24-team postseason tournament.
One source said that whereas two weeks ago, the NHL was “hell-bent” on including regular-season games if play was able to resume, the 24-team playoff idea now is getting “more attention.”
“It’s not a fact, yet,” the source said. “It’s where the sides are leaning as of this week.”
The straight-to-the-playoffs model would allow the NHL to conclude its remaining games more quickly and, potentially, guard against a second wave of coronavirus in the fall.
A second source concurred that the current conversation “points to going right to playoffs,” likely with an expanded field beyond the usual 16 qualifiers. That source stressed that nothing had been decided.
Both the Islanders and the Rangers were on the playoff bubble when play was halted. The Islanders were sixth in the Metropolitan Division with 80 points in 68 games — one point out of a wild-card spot for a 16-team playoff — and the Rangers were seventh with 79 points in 70 games.
The Islanders almost certainly would qualify for an expanded playoff field and the Rangers presumably would qualify for a 24-team field if the NHL uses point percentage to determine the final standings.
The NHL declined comment. However, commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly has said all options are being discussed and no decisions have been made.
Myriad health and logistics issues confront any of the NHL’s efforts to re-start play. The league’s players and personnel still are under a self-quarantine recommendation issued when play was halted. There still are international travel restrictions, and any player returning to North America, or even crossing the border from the United States to Canada or vice versa, may be required to self-quarantine for an additional two weeks.
The players likely will need up to three weeks of a second training camp to safely be able to participate in an NHL game, postseason or otherwise.
The NHL hopes to be able to reopen its practice facilities to small-group workouts by the end of this month, provided it gets the green light from health and government officials.