Commissioner Gary Bettman and company are gearing up for summer hockey — in March Madness style (kind of).
Taking another potential step toward resuming the season and eventually awarding the Stanley Cup, the NHL and NHLPA announced the process to its 24-team return-to-play model Tuesday.
But there is still a lot be determined.
The NHL was forced to suspend the 2019-20 season on March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak. As the hiatus prolonged, it became inevitable that the league would have to forgo the remainder of the regular season. A 24-team tournament makes the decision easier, alleviating the controversy of clubs that were on the playoff bubble with double-digit games left on their regular-season slate when the pause occurred.
Where will games be played?
While the NHL announced the 24-team playoff will be held in two hub cities (one for the East Conference, one for the Western Conference), there is no timeframe or location for when the tournament will be held as the league continues to work on the logistics for when and where games will take place.
Hub cities under consideration. pic.twitter.com/o9MoOtTMv5— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) May 26, 2020
When will play resume?
On Monday, the NHL released a detailed protocol for the implementation of Phase 2, which would allow players to return to team practice facilities for voluntary activities. The league is eyeing early June for Phase 2.
Eventual training camps (Phase 3) will not happen before July 1, meaning a possible resumption of the season could be, at the earliest, some point in late July or the beginning of August. The NHL understands it could be awarding the Stanley Cup in the early fall.
Based on points percentages, the top 12 teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences make up the 24-team field. The format awards the top four seeds in each conference a bye past the play-in round, which consists of best-of-five series. The first and second rounds will be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series. The Eastern/Western Conference Final series and the Stanley Cup Final will be regular best-of-seven formats.
How will seeding work?
Right now, the Flyers are the East's fourth seed. However, they will play round-robin games among the other top three clubs (Bruins, Lightning, Capitals) to determine their seeds for the first round. The four teams will play each other once and total points will determine seeds. If there's a tie among points in the round-robin tourney, the NHL will use regular-season points as a tiebreaker.
Meanwhile, the NHL and NHLPA are still undecided on the format for the first and second rounds — either bracketed or reseeding.
Here are the East's qualifying-round matchups:
No. 8 Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Blue Jackets
No. 7 Islanders vs. No. 10 Panthers
No. 6 Hurricanes vs. No. 11 Rangers
No. 5 Penguins vs. No. 12 Canadiens
Here are the current East's seeds by regular-season points percentages:
8. Maple Leafs
9. Blue Jackets
The Flyers went 22-8-5 against the Eastern Conference playoff field during the regular season.— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) May 27, 2020
Not too shabby. pic.twitter.com/vYuoeSCldZ
The @NHL has released a Return to Play Plan for the 2019-20 season.— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 26, 2020
◾ 24 teams to compete for #StanleyCup
◾ 2 hub cities will host games
◾ Protocol for return to training
◾ Draft Lottery
Full Details: https://t.co/JGXioEC4FA pic.twitter.com/3KoUjPRsq4
Who will Flyers play in first round?
So the Flyers' first-round matchup is up in the air. Regardless, their impressive run prior to the suspension paid off. Before the pause, the Flyers had won nine of their last 10 games and were 19-6-1 since Jan. 8, a stretch in which they were tied with the Bruins for the NHL's most points at 39.
The Flyers since Jan. 8 prior to NHL stoppage. pic.twitter.com/icUrYeh98q— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) April 5, 2020
Because of that stretch, the Flyers will avoid the play-in round and a best-of-five situation.
Prior to the stoppage, the Flyers (41-21-7, 89 points) were a point behind the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals and projected to finish with 104 to 105 points, which would have been their most since 2010-11, when they had 106.
“I felt since Day 1 that one of our goals, and I mentioned this to you guys quite a few times, teams have to continue to improve during the season," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said in late April. "You have to get better. I believe that that’s what we were doing in all aspects of our game, our 5-on-5 play, our specialty teams play, our defensive play, our offensive play. We were getting better individually and we were getting better as a group.
"That enables you to get a chance to get into the playoffs and have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. That was our goal coming into the season. That goal hasn’t changed. Obviously there are different components and a different dynamic at this time. I feel real confident that once we find out if we can get back at it, I’m optimistic that we will.
"I think sports is going to be one of the venues that’s going to help people get through this. Once we get back at it, I’m very confident with the focus of our group that we’ll be at the same page as everybody else and it’s going to be our job to work hard, work smart, do the right things and get back to where we were.”
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