The National Hockey League Players' Association executive board voted to approve a 24-team, conference-based playoff format for a potential restart of the 2019-20 NHL season this summer.
"The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play," the union said in a statement.
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, which would have seven-game series.
The NHLPA board had what was described by a source as a "long, intense" conference call Thursday night to discuss the format, and a vote was conducted over the next 24 hours.
The full NHLPA board was involved in the vote -- including the 24 teams that would advance to the playoffs and the seven non-playoff teams whose seasons would be over by adopting the plan. The format was created by the joint "Return To Play" committee that included NHL executives and a panel of players.
The next step is the NHL signing off on the NHLPA's approved format. A joint announcement on the format could come in the next few days. The NHL is expected to move forward on announcing plans for the NHL draft lottery and the draft itself after this playoff format is announced. It has not been determined when and how players will be able to return to their training facilities.
Approval of the playoff format shouldn't be confused with the players' formal approval of the season restarting. It addresses only the structure of the postseason if teams return to the ice. There are still major issues on which the players and NHL have to find common ground, including where the games will be played and how players will be tested for COVID-19.
The players' approved playoff plan would temporarily replace the divisional wild-card format the league has used since 2013 with two conference tournaments of 12 teams.
Under the proposed format, the seeding and play-in series would be as follows:
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)
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)
Though the NHL's version of the plan had the teams bracketed, there was a push among some of the players to reseed the teams after the first round. This will be a point of further negotiation.
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 potentially reseed them before the round of 16.
Fans will not be allowed at the games, and logistics remain a work in progress.
The NHL probably will utilize only two "hub" cities for its restart from the coronavirus pandemic if the proposed playoff format is adopted, an NHL source told ESPN. The NHL explored using four "hub" arena sites for the restart. Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday that eight or nine locations are under consideration. Las Vegas is widely considered to be a favorite.
Expanding the Stanley Cup playoffs from 16 to 24 teams has been favored by the NHL as an equitable solution for teams that were near the playoff bubble when the season was paused. For example, only four points separated the now-11th-seeded Coyotes from the final wild-card spot, and they had 12 games left in the season.
The NHLPA, however, has expressed reservations about an expanded playoff format. Predators forward Matt Duchene said this week that he would like to see a more traditional format.
"I believe let's keep it as traditional as possible. I'd love to see us jump to a 16-team playoff," Duchene said on Sportsnet 590, warning that too much gimmickry in the playoff format would be detrimental. "You don't want to have a 'COVID Cup,' and I'm worried that if we force this thing and try and it's a little gimmicky and it's not quite right, whoever wins the Cup is gonna have people try to take it away from them for their whole lives, and guys don't deserve that."