The NHL will abandon the rest of the regular season and go straight into the playoffs with 24 teams instead of 16 — if it is able to resume play.
The decision, announced Tuesday by Commissioner Gary Bettman, is no guarantee that games are coming back. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association must still figure out health and safety protocols and solve other issues.
Instead of limiting the Cup chase to the usual 16 teams that qualify for the playoffs, the league and players agreed to expand the field to 24 of its 31 teams because of the unusual circumstances.
That means the Blackhawks are still alive. They will play the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five series in the qualifying round.
The top four teams in each conference ranked by points percentage — Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West — will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding.
“Any plan for the resumption of play by definition cannot be perfect,” Bettman said. “But 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, and this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”
If the season resumes, games are expected to be played in two hub cities.
Locations in the running are Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.
“We are excited that the Chicago Blackhawks will be among the teams that will compete for the Stanley Cup, per the National Hockey League’s Return to Play Plan announced today. That alone is great for our fans, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. We are also proud that Chicago, including our home arena the United Center, is being considered as one of the two possible hub cities as part of the league’s plan.
Moving forward, we will stay in close communication with the NHL, the City of Chicago and state leaders to ensure safety protocols for our players and staff are met. We anticipate a controlled conditioning phase followed by a formal training camp.”
While there are still some details to work out, including whether the first two rounds are best-of-five or seven, Bettman expects the Stanley Cup Final to be played in full in one of the two hub cities.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says players will be tested each evening once they arrive in the city they’ll play games in. Commissioner Gary Bettman estimated the league could do 25,000-30,000 tests while finishing its season.
Bettman says medical experts have advised the league that by this summer there should be enough tests to make 25,000-30,000 not a large chunk of those available to the general public. Bettman said it will be expensive to test that much.
Daly said teams should be able to test players prior to the start of training camps, which won’t happen before July 1.
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said testing is one item players will not compromise on.