NHL announces initial plans of 24-team return to play format

Jun 21, 2019; Vancouver, BC, Canada; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks before the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman officially announced details of the leagues 24-team return to play playoff format on Tuesday — the first of any professional North American league.

The top four teams in each conference will play round-robin games amongst each other and have an automatic bid in the first round of the playoffs while seeds 5-12 will play a best-of-five play-in round to determine the other four participants in each conference. The Avalanche will join St. Louis, Vegas and Dallas as the top four seeds in the western conference.

The NHL has been on pause since March 12 due to COVID-19 concerns. Details on when and where the games will be played have yet to be determined. Although the NHL has limited its options to 10 cities in which two hubs will be selected to host each conference. Rigorous testing will take place on a daily basis in each hub.

“At the pause, we committed to resuming play only when appropriate and prudent,” Bettman said. “We are hopeful the Return To Play Plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount. Accordingly, an essential component of the Plan is a rigorous, regular schedule of testing.”

Bettman also announced that the regular season has concluded, including all team and player stats. Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon led the team in scoring for the fourth consecutive season accruing 35 goals and 93 points in 69 games. MacKinnon and the Avalanche will play three games before the first round of the playoffs with an opportunity to catch the Blues for the top seed in the west. Colorado trails St. Louis by two points with a game in hand.

“I’m glad we don’t get a bye. I’m glad we’re not sitting around watching teams play,” MacKinnon told TSN’s Darren Dreger. “That’s a big layoff. The lower seeds would have a huge advantage so it’s great that we can play some meaningful games against the top teams in the west for seeding.”

Once the round-robin and play-in round is complete, the NHL will either reseed teams based off ranking or go straight into a pre-determined bracket. Bettman did not confirm that the first and second rounds of the playoffs will be a best-of-seven series, introducing the possibility that they could also be a best-of-five before the conference finals, which along with the Stanley Cup Final will be a traditional best-of-seven.

“I think that’s a pretty good format how they’re doing it,” MacKinnon told Dreger. “There’s no perfect way. Everybody had to get creative but it seems like a pretty good place to start.”

The NHL is still in Phase 1 but is expected to transition into Phase 2 by early June. Phase 3, which is a formal training camp will happen no earlier than July.

“While we are anxious to open camps as soon as possible, we don’t envision doing so before the first half of July,” Bettman said.

Bettman also left open the possibility that the Stanley Cup Final could be played in the home cities of the finalists.

Western Conference play-in round:
No. 5 Edmonton vs No. 12 Chicago
No. 6 Nashville vs No. 11 Arizona
No. 7 Vancouver vs No. 10 Minnesota
No. 8 Calgary vs No. 9 Winnipeg

Eastern Conference play-in round:
No. 5 Pittsburgh vs No. 12 Montreal
No. 6 Carolina vs No. 11 NY Rangers
No. 7 NY Islanders vs No. 10 Florida
No. 8 Toronto vs No. 9 Columbus

SHARE