NHL officially announces the 24-team Return To Play format

By WGR 550 SportsRadio

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman held a press conference on Tuesday to officially announced the 24-team Return To Play format, as well as discuss a number of other topics in the league as it starts to prepare for Phase 2 of its Return To Play initiative.

Bettman made the 24-team Return To Play format official after the NHL Players' Association approved of the proposed plan this past Friday.

This format will feature the top-12 teams in each conference playing in a qualifying round, with the top-four seeds in the Eastern and Western Conference (based on points percentage) clinching automatic bids into the first round of the playoffs. That means that the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers have clinched playoff berths in the Eastern Conference, while the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars have clinched in the Western Conference.

These eight teams will also play in an intraconference round-robin event that will determine the top-four seeds of the first round of the playoffs in each conference. These games will be played with regular season overtime and shootout rules, with ties in the final standings broken by regular season points percentage.

The remaining eight teams in each conference will compete in a qualifying round that will feature a bracketed format, meaning that the five-seed will take on the 12-seed, the six-seed will face the 11-seed, the seven-seen battles the 10-seed, and the eight and nine-seed will matchup for the chance to move on to the first round of the playoffs. The matchups for the first round series remain to be set as the Return To Play committee is still determining whether to set the format based on seeding or a bracket.

Here is how that playoff format would look in both conferences:

Eastern Conference:

5 - Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 12 - Montreal Canadiens

6 - Carolina Hurricanes vs. 11 - New York Rangers

7 - New York Islanders vs. 10 - Florida Panthers

8 - Toronto Maple Leafs vs. 9 - Columbus Blue Jackets


Western Conference:

5 - Edmonton Oilers vs. 12 - Chicago Blackhawks

6 - Nashville Predators vs. 11 - Arizona Coyotes

7 - Vancouver Canucks vs.  10 - Minnesota Wild

8 - Calgary Flames vs. 9 - Winnipeg Jets

The qualifying round will be a best-of-five series, while the Return To Play committee has yet to finalize whether the first and second round of the playoffs will be a best-of-five series or a best-of-seven series. However, the Conference Final round and the Stanley Cup Final will all be a best-of-seven series. 

Once the round-robin and qualifying rounds have ended, the league will conduct conference-based playoffs in each hub city.

The league is currently still debating over a total of 10 cities, and it will eventually come down to two final cities to host the Return To Play format once the league can officially restart play.

Those cities include:

  • Chicago
  • Columbus
  • Dallas
  • Edmonton
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • Minneapolis/St. Paul
  • Pittsburgh
  • Toronto
  • Vancouver

Commissioner Bettman did say that a final decision on the two hub cities to host the conclusion of the 2019-20 season might not come for another 3-4 weeks, and that a final determination will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing availability, and government regulations.

At the start of his press conference, Bettman made it clear that the assurance of health and safety of the players, coaches, the essential supports staff and the league's communities are paramount. He also said that the reason that the league has been so adamant about finishing the 2019-20 season is because the fans were telling the league that they want the season completed if possible. The players and teams around the league have also expressed their intent to play and bring the season to "its rightful conclusion."

However, Bettman said that the league will not do anything until they are given the ok from medical professionals and the relevant government authorities that it is safe to return to action.

As for the steps of the league's Return To Play initiative, the NHL released a 21-page memorandum on Monday outlining the framework for Phase 2 of the league's plan. The document said that the target date for the commencement of Phase 2 is set for some time in early June, and that no firm dates were given as to when and how long this Phase will last.

Phase 2 will see the players return to their team's home facilities for voluntary, on- and off-ice training in small groups of no more than six players at any one time.

As for Phase 3, this will see the opening of formal training camps for all 24 teams taking part in the Return To Play format. The timing of the commencement of Phase 3 will, once again, be determined by the guidance of medical professionals and the relevant government authorities. The league also does not envision the opening of Phase 3 to come any time before July 1.

When the time becomes appropriate during Phase 3, the league will kick off Phase 4 of the Return To Play initiative, that sees all 24 teams reporting to their respective hub cities to resume play of the 2019-20 season. At this point, the league knows that this will take the season through the summer months and into the fall, so the NHL has not set any dates for the beginning of play in Phase 4.

With this announcement coming on Tuesday, Bettman has officially declared the 2019-20 regular season officially over.

This also marks the end of the season for the Buffalo Sabres, who finished the year with a 30-31-8 record with 68 points in 69 games played. The team ended up in 25th place in the final NHL standings, just three points shy of the 12th and final spot in the Eastern Conference qualifying round held by the Montreal Canadiens.

The NHL has announced its Return to Play plans.Our message to Sabres fans: https://t.co/fzE8FOP3Ku pic.twitter.com/4N8Xkb0mzj

— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) May 26, 2020

Bettman also set the date for the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, which will take place on Friday, June 26. 

Unlike in past years, this draft lottery format could see the league holding the lottery in two Phases, depending on how the lottery ball fall.

Phase 1 will take place on June 26 with 15 teams eligible to win the top-three picks in the draft. The seven teams that failed to make it to the pre-qualifying round will hold the best odds to win any of the top-three picks, while the eight teams eliminated in the pre-qualifying round will make up the rest of the 15-team field.

At the time of the draft lottery on June 26, it will be unclear which teams will be of the eight that will be eliminated in the qualifying round. With that, the league has designated temporary placeholders with the odds that the collective group would have had.

Here is how the draft order looks with the teams that will miss out on the 24-team format, and the unknown teams that will play in the qualifying round, along with their draft lottery odds:

  1. Detroit Red Wings - 18.5%
  2. Ottawa Senators - 13.5%
  3. Ottawa Senators (from the San Jose Sharks) - 11.5%
  4. Los Angeles Kings - 9.5%
  5. Anaheim Ducks - 8.5%
  6. New Jersey Devils - 7.5%
  7. Buffalo Sabres - 6.5%
  8. Team A - 6.0%
  9. Team B - 5.0%
  10. Team C - 3.5%
  11. Team D - 3.0%
  12. Team E - 2.5%
  13. Team F - 2.0%
  14. Team G - 1.5%
  15. Team H - 1.0%

If a top-three pick is won by any of the seven teams that missed out on the Return To Play format, that team, or the team that holds on to the rights of that first round pick will get that selected position. If all three teams that are selected are part of that group of teams that missed out on the Return To Play format, there will be no need for a Phase 2 part of the draft.

If any of the three picks were to be won by a team that played and lost in the qualifying round, Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery will take place before the Conference Quarterfinals round. This Phase of the draft lottery will only involve the teams that did not advance past the qualifying round, and all of the teams involved will have the same odds of winning the pick(s) at 12.5%.

Once the top-three picks of the 2020 NHL Draft have been determined, the rest of the draft order will determined by points percentage in reverse order.

Keep it locked to WGR and WGR550.com for more on this developing story.