The National Hockey League has been working diligently to come up with a return-to-play plan, and it appears that they have support from the players. League sources are indicating that the players are expected to vote in favor of the new plan.
Even though there are still many other steps that will need to take place before the league returns to action, this is seen as a significant step. Other leagues that have been working to come back have failed to get the players on board at this time.
Under this proposal from the league, not all of the 31 teams in the NHL will return to action. The league will be bringing back just the top 24 teams in the league, and they will be starting directly with the playoffs.
The normal playoff format for the NHL is just 16 teams, but the league felt like there were some teams that could have snuck into the playoffs, and they also wanted to include two of their most important franchises. Both the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks will be included in the playoffs under this new plan.
The National Hockey League created a return-to-play committee to come up with this plan, and they have spent weeks working on it. The committee was made up of top league and union executives, and a number of the top players from the league were also included in the meetings.
Under this new plan, the playoffs would be split up into conferences rather than have the playoffs begin in a division format. Each of the top four seeds in each conference will participate in a round-robin tournament just as a way to warm up. The league will take the standings from when they decided to shut down operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The remaining eight teams from each conference will participate in a play-in round to determine who advances to the Elite Eight in each conference. It is unclear how that play-in round will work, but it is expected to be a best-of-five situation.
After the field of 16 teams is set, the playoff format would follow the traditional plan, except each conference would be battling each other. The hope is that the players and teams will be playing at their top level after sitting out for more than two months.
There were still 189 regular-season games left on the 2019-20 NHL schedule, and the league is planning on canceling all of those games. Even though teams and owners are set to lose out on a ton of revenue, the league wants to ensure that there is a Stanley Cup champion awarded this year.
Now that the playoff format appears to be set, there are still several major issues facing the league. All of these scenarios must also get approval from the NHL Players Association as well as state and local health officials.
Coming up with a proper and reasonable protocol for COVID-19 testing is one of the biggest hurdles that the league now faces. The NHL must also select a location or locations for the new playoff format to take place.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league is looking into about eight or nine different locations, with these locations being split between the United States and Canada.
Both Canada and the United States currently have travel restrictions, but it is expected that these restrictions would be lifted for professional sports. Both countries have expressed the desire to see sports returning, and the NHL feels comfortable getting their approval.