Coronavirus: NHL announces return-to-play format with 24-team playoff

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Tuesday the league will conclude the 2019-20 season with a 24-team playoff to crown a Stanley Cup champion.

Bettman unveiled the league's return-to-play plan, revealing that the regular season is finished and when medical experts determine it is safe for games to resume, the NHL will dive right into the playoffs in two yet-to-be-decided hub cities.

In the unique playoff format, the top 12 teams from each conference ranked by points percentage when the season went on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12 will make the playoffs.

The top four teams in each conference will compete in a round-robin tournament to determine final seedings. The teams seeded five through 12 would participate in a play-in tournament featuring a best-of-five series to determine who advances to face the top four seeds.

In this format, the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers are the top teams in the Eastern Conference, while the St Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars are the Western Conference's top clubs.

The remaining 16 teams will match up as follows – in the East it will be Pittsburgh v Montreal, Carolina v New York Rangers, New York Islanders v Florida and Toronto v Columbus. In the West, it will be Edmonton v Chicago, Nashville v Arizona, Vancouver v Minnesota and Calgary v Winnipeg.

“We believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused," Bettman said. "And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL."

It has yet to be decided if the first and second round will be best-of-five or best-of-seven series, but the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will each be best-of-seven series. 

The hub cities under consideration are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St Paul and Pittsburgh in the United States; and Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. A decision on the hub cities will depend on government regulations and COVID-19 conditions in those areas.

In addition to not announcing locations for games, the NHL also did not disclose any possible dates for games to return. 

"Obviously, we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall," Bettman said. "At this time, we are not fixing dates because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of the players." 

Bettman is hopeful players would be able to voluntarily return to their practice facilities in early June and an official training camp would begin in mid-July before teams report to their hub cities.

"Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible," Bettman said. "And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion."

In this return to play plan, Anaheim, Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Ottawa and San Jose would be the only seven teams whose 2019-20 season would be over and would not participate in the playoffs. They would enter the draft lottery, as well as the eight teams that get eliminated from the play-in round.