Gary Bettman jumped on the most anticipated hockey-related virtual call since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to shut down operations, and on it detailed plans for the league’s resumption of play as well as the upcoming NHL Draft.
There are still many, many questions to be answered, but now the league has an official framework to build around after the NHL and NHLPA came to an official agreement last weekend on this summer’s return-to-play format and the league’s draft proposal.
He stated that he believes the format will satisfy the most important issue in the context of strictly the NHL, which is that it will do justice by the history and tradition of the sport.
“This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion,” Bettman said, “who will have run the postseason gauntlet unique to the NHL.”
As it was reported previously, 24 teams will officially resume the season, leaving seven on hiatus until the 2020-21 campaign. The top four teams in each conference will automatically advance to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, while 16 teams will compete in a best-of-five qualifying round to complete the bracket. Coinciding with the qualifying round, the top four teams in each conference will play a round robin to determine seeding.
Both the qualifying round and round-robin tournament between the top four seeds will exist outside the framework of the regular season, which Bettman has now deemed complete. That means that Alexander Ovechkin and David Pastrnak will split the Rocket Richard Trophy, while Leon Draisaitl will win his first Art Ross Trophy with the league’s highest point total.
Once the seeds are finalized, the NHL will proceed with its typical 16-team format, with the only differences being that conference re-seeding remains an option at this point and that the first and second rounds may be contested through a best-of-five format.
What Bettman failed to include in his announcement was any official dates for the NHL as it moves through the “phases” in the return-to-play protocol.
Here are the loose timelines he provided for the players, who have been in Phase 1 since the protocol was first established:
Phase 2: Players return to club cities for informal and voluntary workouts. Targeted for early June.
Phase 3: Clubs hold training camps. No earlier than July 1, and “not envisioned” for the first half of July.
Phase 4: Return to play. Not expected to begin until late summer, and will spill into the fall.
Also not included in the announcement was any clarity on which cities will be chosen as “hubs,” though Bettman did confirm that two destinations will be selected, and named 10 under consideration. It is likely that two cities will be chosen from a pool that includes Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
Bettman said that “things are evolving rapidly,” and the decision on hub cities won’t be made until more information becomes available as cities and regions continue to grip with the pandemic. However, as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly stated on a conference call shortly after Bettman’s announcement, markets north of the border will be excluded from consideration if the Canadian government doesn’t relax its mandated 14-day quarantine requirement for those entering the country.
Daly also said the NHL recognizes the potential advantage for the teams that belong to the potential hub cities, and the strong likelihood that they would instead compete in the opposite host area.
Where Bettman delivered the most clarity was with the draft and draft lottery — which may now include two phases.
Bettman announced that the NHL will conduct the draft lottery on June 26, and the seven teams that aren’t eligible to return this season will have the opportunity there to win the rights to the No. 1 selection, as well as the second and third picks.
If the seven teams involved claim the top three selections, it won’t require a second phase. However, if a selection lands outside the bottom seven, there will be a second lottery involving the teams that fail to advance beyond the qualifying round. In essence, the teams that fail to advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs will each have a three percent chance to win the No. 1 draft selection.
That lottery will take place between the qualifying round and first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Plan for testing
Bettman reiterated that the NHL will not take from the public to conduct the testing necessary to resume competition at the start of his announcement, but the league will need it in abundance to accomplish its goal.
Testing will work in three phases, and in correspondence with the steps toward the return to play. In Phase 2, or while conducting small workouts, players will be tested twice a week. The testing cadence will increase during training camp, or Phase 3, and when the league resumes games at hub cities, players will receive daily tests.
Daly later said in his conference call with reporters that a positive test won’t necessarily force operations to shut down again.
“Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak that will affect our ability to play. But a single positive test, throughout a two-month tournament, should not necessarily mean an end for the tournament.”
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