Friday night, the NHL got a lot closer to returning to play when the players association voted in favor of the a proposed new playoff format. This doesn’t guarantee that we will see hockey this summer as the two sides still have a lot to negotiate - chief among them a revenue split and safety measures - but it’s a big step towards getting back on the ice.
Due to the unprecedented circumstances of the league being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL has been forced to look at new options to get back on the ice, not only to preserve the competitive balance of a season that was 80% finished but more significantly to fulfill contractual obligations to partners and stakeholders.
Friday evening, the player representatives for all 31 teams were on a conference call where they agreed to a unique playoff format that would help the NHL get as many teams back on the ice as possible. The plan is for a 24-team return-to-play format that will have the top four seeds in each conference given a bye directly to the “playoffs” while the other 16 enter a best-of-five “play-in” round to determine their opponents.
Among important on-ice details that still need to be negotiated is how things will go after that first group of “play-in” games. The NHL wants a bracketed tournament but the NHLPA is pushing for a system that sees teams re-seeded going into the second round of games. By re-seeding the teams in each conference, it ensures that the top-4 teams are given the advantage they deserve given their success in the regular season.
Even with this affirmative vote, there are still some details with the 24-team playoff format still to be worked out between the NHL and NHLPA. One of them is whether they'll go ahead with a playoff bracket or use reseeding.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 23, 2020
There’s also the matter of determining where the games will be played. At first, the league was pushing for four separate “hub” cities. Of the four, the NHL wanted two Canadian cities, but thanks to travel and quarantine issues with crossing the border to the north, it sounds as though that plan has been put on the back burner. The more likely scenario is that the league will copy the NBA’s format of using two cities - one per conference.
No official list has been released but most believe that the league is currently considering a half dozen cities. Don’t be surprised if at the end of the day we see the Western Conference in Las Vegas while the Eastern Conference is playing in Columbus.
Chris Johnston of Sportsnet outlined a number of the issues still facing the NHL and the NHLPA before they can get back on the ice:
“There is considerable ground to cover before this concept becomes reality. Issues like securing enough testing capacity and agreeing to the safety protocols. Addressing player concerns about separation from families for a long period of time and determining which two cities will be used as return-to-play hubs. Getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 players back from Europe and seeing if every team will be able to hold a training camp in its own city.”
That’s not an insignificant list.
While this vote is a big step in the right direction, there are still a number of big issues that could derail the league’s return this summer. One misstep by the league could lead to the whole thing being shut down.
As of now, there is no timetable set forth due to the long list of things that still need to be achieved. Many are speculating that the NHL’s goal is to get games underway by the end of July
The vote means that the 2019-20 season is over for Buffalo, New Jersey, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa and Detroit.
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