It has been 75 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continue, there have also been continuous nuggets of new information regarding the potential resumption of the season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all impacts 2020-21.
As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every week, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL’s relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week’s update, including a specific, 24-team playoff format for when the league resumes play. Get caught up here:
What’s the latest on the format of the playoff tournament?
Greg Wyshynski: By a 29-2 vote, the executive board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association approved a 24-team “return to play” format for the restart of the 2019-20 season. The NHL is expected to approve, or suggest its own changes to, the format at some point this week. The format was born out of the joint NHL/NHLPA “return to play” committee that has been meeting on conference calls each week for the past month or so.
The players’ approved playoff plan would temporarily replace the divisional wild-card format the league has used since 2012-13 with two conference tournaments of 12 teams. Expanding the Stanley Cup playoffs from 16 to 24 teams has been favored by the NHL as an equitable solution for teams that were on the playoff bubble when the season was paused.
Under the plan, the top four seeds in each conference, as determined by their standings points percentage when the regular season was paused on March 12, would receive byes through a round of best-of-five, play-in series featuring seeds 5 through 12. Those play-in series would determine which teams advance to a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket, which would then have seven-game series.
Those top four teams in each conference won’t sit idly by. The format calls for these teams to face one another to remain sharp ahead of the next round of the playoffs — which had been a concern from the players. The top four teams would essentially play some form of a round-robin tournament that would reseed them before the round of 16. A final decision on that format will be made when the NHL signs off on it.
One important caveat: This was not a vote on whether to return to the ice to complete the 2019-20 season, but rather a format for if that happens. The decision to actually return would require an entirely different conversation about locations, accommodations, testing and safety measures.
Did everyone agree on the 24-team format?
Emily Kaplan: Not everybody. A player who was on the NHLPA executive board’s calls told me there was a pretty lively debate and said “some guys brought up good points against this format.”
Of the 31-player vote (one representative for every team), 29 voted for and two voted against. Jordan Martinook, the player rep for the Carolina Hurricanes, and Alex Killorn, the player rep for the Tampa Bay Lightning, both confirmed they voted against.
“For where we were and where our team thought we could get to, it hurts our odds,” Martinook explained on a Zoom call with reporters on Monday. In the proposed format, the Canes — who were nearly a lock to make the playoffs before the pause — will have to face off against the New York Rangers, who went 4-0 against them this season. Martinook noted “it’s not like we don’t want to play,” and he added his team is fully prepared to move forward.
Our educated guess for the Hurricanes: They would have preferred a 24-team round-robin format that would have more greatly weighed regular-season achievement, rather than this play-in format. The Hurricanes amassed 81 points in 68 games. They had the fifth-best points percentage (.596) in the Eastern Conference. They were a wild-card team in the previously agreed-upon playoff format. Now, they have to win a five-game series against a non-playoff team in order to make the round of 16.
The Lightning, meanwhile, weren’t crazy about being one of four teams with a “bye” to get to the 16-team field. Tampa Bay had the second-best record in the NHL, with 92 points at the pause.
“[My teammates] didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series,” Killorn told The Athletic. “My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”
Killorn added: “I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs.” Like Martinook, Killorn wanted to stress his team was fine with the decision and looking forward to resuming.
The player on the executive board who I spoke to said he thinks the group ultimately voted to approve the format because “it’s best for hockey right now. What’s best for our sport is getting back on the ice.”
What are the current matchups under the “return to play” format, and what could change about them?
Wyshynski: The No. 5 through No. 12 matchups appear to be set, based on standings points percentage at the time of the pause. Here’s what that looks like for the 24 teams:
Play-in series: Pittsburgh Penguins (5) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12)
Carolina Hurricanes (6) vs. New York Rangers (11)
New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida Panthers (10)
Toronto Maple Leafs (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9)
Now, there are two bits of business yet to be decided in this “return to play” format. The first, as we mentioned, is what kind of impact the round robin among the top seeds will have on final seeding. This is important because, as it stands, the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs remain bracketed under the initial proposal. The winner of the No. 5 vs. No. 12 series would play the No. 4 seed; the winner of the No. 6 vs. No. 11 series would play the No. 3 seed; the winner of the No. 7 vs. No. 10 series would play the No. 2 seed; and the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 series would face the top seed.
In other words: If the Canadiens upset the Penguins in a five-game series, the Bruins would still have to face the Maple Leafs or Blue Jackets in the opening round of the 16-team tournament rather than the No. 12 seed in the conference, who would play the Flyers. (Assuming the top seeds remain where they are.)
Which brings us to the other bit of business: There was strong sentiment in the NHLPA that the playoffs should be reseeded rather than bracketed due to the expansion of the field. The NHL has been steadfast in its support of a playoff bracket since shifting to the wild card in 2013. This was one of the only lingering requests from the players after their vote to approve.
How many sites would be needed for this return to play format?
Wyshynski: As first reported by ESPN, the NHL is now focused on two “hub” cities for its season restart. It was previously looking at four sites when the format was going to be division-based, but with a conference format that has changed. Las Vegas remains a speculative front-runner for one of the sites — and given its accommodations capacity and the location of T-Mobile Arena, it could end up being the site of the NHL’s championship rounds, too. Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Columbus are all in consideration as hub cities.
The Fourth Period’s Dennis Bernstein reported last weekend that “a bid by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and owner/operator of Staples Center, is being considered by the NHL as a site for the continuation of play.” But given the city’s COVID-19 restrictions, that could be a difficult match.
Where can we watch these games?
Wyshynski: We should reiterate that these games will be held inside empty arenas at “hub” sites. The expectation is that NHL games with fans in the building won’t happen until the 2020-21 season. As for where to watch the games, sources told ESPN that the majority of play-in rounds will likely be aired on local regional sports networks as a way to satisfy contractual requirements that haven’t yet been met. For some teams, that minimum threshold is 70 games. This is one reason the NHL, behind the scenes, is not referring to the play-in round as a “playoff” round.
As has been previously reported, the NHL could use the “virtual boards” it had at the All-Star Game this season to display local advertising on respective local feeds to satisfy those contractual obligations as well.
Governors in multiple states — including New York, most recently — have given the thumbs-up for teams returning to facilities. Where does the NHL stand?
Kaplan: In a memo circulated to teams over the weekend, the NHL announced it was ready to move to Phase 2, which would allow small groups to train at team facilities. The NHL didn’t put an exact date on when Phase 2 will go into effect, though it said it was targeting early June. In the memo, the league said it will continue to “monitor developments in each of the club’s markets, and may adjust the overall timing if appropriate.”
The new protocols allow for a maximum of six players to train at the team facilities at once. On-ice sessions are for players only, with no coaches or other team personnel allowed on the ice. Players must wear face coverings at all times, except when they are exercising or on the ice.
Here’s what is permitted in Phase 2:
Player-only, non-contact skates
Weight training that doesn’t require the need for a spotter
Cardio, resistance or endurance training
Rehab treatment for players with ongoing injuries
And here’s who is not allowed at the facilities during Phase 2:
Which players will participate in Phase 2?
Kaplan: The NHL emphasized that participation in Phase 2 is “strictly voluntary” and teams should not require players to return to their playing city yet. Remember, commissioner Gary Bettman revealed last week that 17% of players are currently outside North America. According to the NHL memo, clubs should help facilitate travel arrangement for players “to the extent permitted.” Players will be reimbursed travel expenses to get to their playing city, up to $1,500, and players who don’t live in their playing city full-time will be provided hotel accommodations as well as a rental car.
“The accommodations must be of the same high quality provided to players during the regular season,” the memo reads, adding that “family-appropriate accommodation” will be provided as well if the player chooses to bring his family.
The memo is clear: Players who participate in Phase 2 cannot work out or skate at any public facilities, and they cannot organize group skates outside of the training sessions organized by teams.
Another wrinkle: Let’s say a player has been taking shelter in place in Minnesota, but he doesn’t play for the Minnesota Wild. He may go to the Wild’s facility, according to the memo, and the Wild should “take all reasonable measures to accommodate such requests.” In this hypothetical scenario, the Wild could reject the request but would have to alert the NHL and NHLPA for them to review.
How is testing going to work in Phase 2?
Kaplan: First, let’s note the quarantine protocols. If a player travels back to this home city via public transportation — like a commercial flight or a train — he must serve a 14-day self-quarantine period before he can participate in Phase 2. The team’s medical personnel can also impose the 14-day self-quarantine for anyone traveling from a “high-risk environment.”
As for testing, everyone participating in Phase 2 will be administered a laboratory-based RT-PCR test 48 hours before they can participate. The NHL is maintaining its stance that it doesn’t want to step in front of medical or community needs, so it says this only should be done if it is “feasible in each club’s local market” to test asymptomatic people. If tests are available in the market, everyone participating in Phase 2 will be tested “at least twice weekly” afterward. In addition, players are told to conduct self-temperature and symptom tests daily, which will be logged.
The league also says it’s consulting with the NHLPA and will provide a remote educational session for anyone participating in Phase 2 to alert them of potential risks, as well as safety protocols.
As for what happens if there’s a positive test? According to the memo, “the player shall be deemed to have sustained an illness arising out of the course of his employment as a hockey player for such period as he may be removed from training, practice or play, and his condition shall be treated as a hockey-related injury for all purposes under the collective bargaining agreement, unless it is established, based on the facts at issue, that the player contracted COVID-19 or the resulting or related illness outside the course of his employment as a hockey player.”
What other safety protocols is the NHL implementing for Phase 2?
Kaplan: The NHL’s memo about Phase 2 is 29 pages long, so let’s just say there are plenty. Each team is supposed to appoint a hygiene officer to implement all procedures. Just to understand the level of specificity, here are a handful of items to note:
Players are encouraged to shower at home whenever possible.
Players must leave workout clothing and equipment at the facility so that teams can handle the cleaning and laundering.
Players must wear footwear at all times in team facilities.
There is no sharing of towels; all towels will be considered single-use.
Clubs will be required to supply player-specific water bottles, labeled with each player’s name, number or both.
Clubs also must make hand sanitizer available in the medical room, equipment room, main entry to player bench, coaches room, strength and conditioning area, laundry room and dressing rooms.
Proper cleaning of team facilities must be completed before any of the facilities are open, between small group training sessions, and at the end of each day.
As well as reminders to sanitize and wash hands often, players are advised to “continue to avoid handshakes, high-fives and fist bumps, even with individuals and teammates you know well.”
What’s the latest on the draft?
Kaplan: The NHL still hasn’t decided on when it will host the draft, keeping everyone in limbo. At this point, seeing a draft in June is very unlikely. However, Renaud Lavoie of RDS reported on Monday that the NHL should have the draft lottery on June 26 — which, by the way, is when the draft in Montreal was originally scheduled.
The NHL still hasn’t announced the procedures for the draft lottery, though the seven teams who did not qualify for the expanded 24-team format (Devils, Ducks, Kings, Red Wings, Sabres, Sharks and Senators) are hoping they will be the only ones eligible to earn a top-three slot, and the right to pick Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 overall.
And as always, what’s your latest pop culture addiction this week?
Kaplan: I started a quarantine book club with my good friend Joan Niesen and Isabelle Khurshudyan, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite ex-hockey reporter. I just began reading our first book, “The Great Believers,” by Rebecca Makkai. I’m only 50 pages in, so review to come later. I’m also considering watching “The Americans” from the beginning; if anyone has opinions whether that’s a good or bad idea, I’ll take them.
Wyshynski: My wife and I started playing chess on the iPad. I was never good at it, and that combined with rust of not playing in some time has led to several instances in which I’ve missed clear checkmate opportunities to her benefit. I’ve started rewatching the final season of “Battlestar Galactica,” to find out if I still find it as crushingly disappointing as I did when I viewed it in real time.
Comics-wise, I just did a re-read of “Batman: Hush” and the Spider-Man arc “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which both hold up well. (FWIW, Hugh Jackman would make an incredible Kraven in a live-action version of this. And it would be OK, because the “X-Men” series isn’t MCU canon.)