The NHL's coronavirus pause: What the playoff format means for all 31 teams, updates on testing, more

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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 affects 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 if the league resumes play, which was approved by both the NHL and NHL Players' Association. Get caught up on it all here:

Has there been an update on when the league will return to play?

Emily Kaplan: This week brought some progress. On Tuesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave a news conference during which he outlined the return to play format (see below) and gave some clarity on where the league stands.

For all intents and purposes, the 2019-20 regular season is now complete. The Boston Bruins are your Presidents' Trophy winners. Leon Draisaitl took home the Art Ross with 110 points, becoming the first German-born player to win that honor. Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak share the goal-scoring title, with 48 apiece. (Ovechkin falls two goals short of his ninth 50-goal season, which would have tied Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky for most all time.)

The Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils won't take the ice again this season, and they're automatically entered into the draft lottery.

For the rest of the 24 teams? Training camps won't begin until at least July, according to Bettman. Training camps should last roughly three weeks. Given the new schedule, Bettman suggested the 2020-21 season could start even later than imagined -- perhaps as late as January.

"Could we start with the Winter Classic?" Bettman said on an appearance on the Tim & Sid show on CJCL-AM Sportsnet 590 following his news conference. "Anything is possible."

What's the latest on the format of the playoff tournament?

Greg Wyshynski: By a 29-2 vote, the executive board of the NHLPA approved a 24-team "return to play" format for the restart of the 2019-20 season, and the NHL announced its approval of the format on Tuesday. 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 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. The length of the first- and second-round series in the 16-team tourney are to be determined, but Bettman indicated that the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final would be best-of-seven 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.

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?

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 that 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 would 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 that his team was fine with the decision and looking forward to resuming.

The player on the executive board whom 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 are set, based on standings points percentage at the time of the pause. Here's what that looks like for the 24 teams:

Eastern Conference

Top seeds: Boston Bruins (1), Tampa Bay Lightning (2), Washington Capitals (3), Philadelphia Flyers (4)

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)

Western Conference

Top seeds: St. Louis Blues (1), Colorado Avalanche (2), Vegas Golden Knights (3), Dallas Stars (4).

Play-in series: Edmonton Oilers (5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12)

Nashville Predators (6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11)

Vancouver Canucks (7) vs. Minnesota Wild (10)

Calgary Flames (8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (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, which 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:The NHL is now focused on two hub cities for the 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 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. Bettman said on Tuesday that there are 10 hub cities in consideration: Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Edmonton, Alberta; Los Angeles; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Pittsburgh; Toronto; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Las Vegas. The NHL will likely name the hub cities in the next three or four weeks.

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 and New Jersey, 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:

  • The media
  • Player agents
  • Massage therapists
  • Chiropractors
  • Player-performance personnel
  • Family members

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 cities yet. Remember, Bettman revealed last week that 17% of players are currently outside North America. According to the NHL memo, clubs should help facilitate travel arrangements for players "to the extent permitted." Players will be reimbursed travel expenses to get to their playing cities, up to $1,500, and players who don't live in their playing cities 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 his 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 reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (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 should be done only 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 self-conduct 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 is 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: Bettman announced that the draft will take place after the completion of the playoffs, so teams are no longer in limbo. (The NHL had tried to push the draft out in early June, before the season resumed again, but the league office got significant pushback from general managers, preventing it from going through with that.)

The procedures for the draft lottery are a bit more complicated this year. It's going to be done in two phases. The seven teams that did not qualify for the expanded 24-team format (Devils, Ducks, Kings, Red Wings, Sabres, Sharks and Senators) are automatically qualified for the lottery and the right to pick Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 overall. That's going to be Phase 1, and will be completed on June 26.

"At the time of the first-phase draws, we won't know which eight teams won't advance from the qualifying round," Bettman said. "So we have designated temporary placeholders with the odds that the collective group would have had."

The eight placeholder teams will start with a roughly 3% chance of landing the first overall pick, and will be represented by letters A through H.

If each of the top three selections is won by one of the seven non-playoff teams, there won't be a Phase 2. But if any of the three draws is won by a placeholder team, we'll get a Phase 2 lottery before the 16-team playoff tournament begins. In this second lottery, only the eight teams eliminated in the qualifying round will be involved, and each of them will have the same odds to move into the top three (12.5%).

So in one hypothetical, if the Red Wings win the lottery for pick No. 1 and the Devils get pick No. 2, but pick No. 3 goes to "Team E," that mystery team will be chosen from a pool of the "play-in round" losing clubs during the second lottery round.

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, aka 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 from 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 reread 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 Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.)

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