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The NHL announces their return to play plan

Details and dates are still up in the air, but at least the framework is in place.

Gary Bettman

Late Tuesday afternoon NHL Commissioner (and Hall of Famer) Gary Bettman announced that the NHL and the NHLPA have agreed to the basic framework of a plan to conduct the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Details, dates, and locations were not announced, nor will they be in the foreseeable future. While not everyone will agree on the plan, the league and the players believe it is the best way forward to crown a champion in a year that is anything but usual.

The basics: For the purposes of record keeping, stats, and determining the finished standings the 2019-20 NHL regular season is over. The league will start back up with the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The top four seeds in each conference will have a bye for the first round, but will play a round-robin tournament to determine seeding in the next round. The remaining eight teams in each conference will face off in the opening round. The winners will be matched up against the top seeds and the fun will begin.

There will be two hub cities, one hosting the Eastern Conference teams and the other hosting the Western Conference teams. Those sites have yet to be determined but will draw from a list of these cities: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver. While it’s thought that Tampa did express interest, they were not among the final locations chosen.

When they do have the okay from public health and government officials to proceed they will do so in as protective of an environment as possible. Each club will be limited to 50 personnel in the hub city that they are assigned and an even more limited number of support staff will be allowed into the event arenas. The league released a detailed returned to play protocol a few days ago for their Phase II. Imagine an even more stringent set of rules and procedures to be in place for the next couple of phases.

As far as what’s for certain, that’s about it. Dates are still up in the air, but from the information provided by Mr. Bettman it doesn’t sound like actual game action would take place until mid-July at the very earliest. His suggested timeline was that the NHL would enter Phase II (small, organized workouts) in early June. Then Phase III (official training camps) would begin no earlier than July 1st, but most likely mid-July. Teams would probably need at least two-to-three weeks to get comfortable again so that puts the beginning of the action around the end of July or early August.

He estimated that it would take about a month to play the first two rounds, so a Stanley Cup champion won’t be crowned until at least September. He does believe that if all goes well, they would be able to complete the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs in time to conduct a full 2021-21 regular season calendar. Mr. Bettman did not indicate if it would start on time.

There are still a lot of details to be worked out. The Return to Play committee has yet to decide if the first two rounds would be five or seven game series (the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals would be seven game series) nor do they know if the second round would be seeded or bracketed to determine how to progress.

So what does this mean for the Tampa Bay Lightning?

They are among the top seeds in the Eastern Conference and therefore will be automatically entered into the second round of the playoffs. They will spend their first couple of weeks playing against the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals, and the Philadelphia Flyers to determine overall seeding for the second round and beyond.

Per Joe Smith, only Victor Hedman and Luke Schenn are out of the country, so the Lightning should be able to enter Phase II pretty easily and start working out in small groups in the Tampa area. That may give them a small advantage over some other teams that will have to wait for their players to return and possible quarantine before beginning their workouts.

The Lightning were one of two teams (Carolina reportedly was the other) that voted no on the proposal. Their feelings were that teams that might not have made the playoffs had to great a chance to upset a higher finishing team in the first round, and that the level of competitive play among the top seeds wouldn’t match that of the teams playing their way in during the first round.

It’s not surprising that the Lightning would be wary of such a predicament considering that they had nothing to play for over the final month of last season and were then promptly swept in the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully, the incentive of fighting for a top seed and the latent animosity that usually arises in games against Boston and Philadelphia can help offset any sense of complacency in their early games.

Mr. Bettman admitted that there was no perfect plan to return to play and that there would be detractors to this version. The league’s goal was to produce a “worthy Stanley Cup champion” and they felt that this plan provides the best means to produce such a champion in these unprecedented times.

After the first round, there should be some feeling of a return to normalcy to the playoffs, and story lines should emerge that overcome any residual distaste of the overall format. It, of course, goes without saying that should the league not be able to guarantee player safety, or if local officials deem it’s unwise to conduct sporting events, this can all change.

Part of the announcement on Tuesday also concerned the draft lottery. It will contain the seven teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs and the eight teams that will be eliminated in the first round. There are two phases with the first being conducted on June 26th. Other than that...well, it gets complicated. Detroit has the best odds for the overall number one pick (18.5%) and the Lightning don’t have a pick so it doesn’t matter for them. If you want more details, here’s the breakdown, placeholders and all.