NHL cancels 2019-20 seasons; unveil new plans


NHL will resume with play-offs May 2020 Image: NHL

The National Hockey League (NHL) has dropped the idea of playing its 2019-20 regular seasons and will go straight for an expanded 24-team playoff format on the condition that it is able to resume play amid the coronavirus crisis which has dealt a severe punch to the United States. This information was given by the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is a professional ice hockey league in North America, currently comprising 31 teams: Twenty four in the United States and seven in Canada.

The NHL’s preliminary return-to-play plans are scheduled to feature the top 12 teams in each conference playing in a newly structured tournament, with qualifying participants determined based on every team’s points percentage at the time the season was postponed in mid-March. At the time, there were 189 games remaining in the regular season.

The above equation worked out means that the current campaign for the league’s bottom seven teams – Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres – is over. They are automatically entered into the NHL Draft Lottery.

The NHL Draft Lottery is a lottery to determine the order of the teams for the first 15 selections in the NHL Entry Draft.

The conventional norm is that 16 teams make for the postseason. In each 12-team conference in the new format, the top four teams will receive byes to the first round of the playoffs and play each other for seeding in a mini round-robin format, in part to help keep the players sharp while awaiting their tournament opponents. The remaining eight teams will play in a best-of-five “play-in” series to advance to the first round.

The said playoff structure planned goes on to make the NHL the first of the major American team sports properties to announce any sort of specific competitive structure for resuming play amid the major public health crisis sparked off by the pandemic.

“I think it’s been an important day for sports and for the NHL in this incredibly unique, difficult, and trying time,” Bettman said.

“Obviously everything we’re focused on starts with health and safety and people’s well‑being, but we think we’ve been able to work very collaboratively with the NHL Players’ Association and the players to come up with a framework that is fair and has integrity and should result in a terrific competitive playoffs and ultimately the awarding of the best trophy in all of sports,” Bettman added.

The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers comprise the top four teams in the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, the top four heavyweights are St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Dallas Stars.

The planned postseason tournament will be played in two “hub cities” to be announced in the coming weeks, one for each conference. Ten cities, all existing league markets, are in line for playoff games sans spectators: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.

Las Vegas is considered a hot favorite to become one of the hub cities, while it is also possible a city located geographically in the west could stage playoffs for the Eastern Conference. Two US cities are likely to be picked up due to the complexities of travel over the US-Canadian border as well as tight coronavirus restrictions in place within Canada, though three Canadian markets are also being taken into consideration.

The hub sites will have secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation, and strict coronavirus testing and protocols would be carried out at each site. Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in the hub city, with few support staff permitted to enter the event areas.

However, all the plans are provisional, taking into cognisance how fatal the COVID-19 pandemic is. It will also depend on how players can return to training in their local markets, ongoing testing of players in the coming weeks, and a final deal required to be inked between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.

The National Hockey League Players’ Union is the labour union for the group of professional hockey players who are under Standard Player Contracts to the 31 member clubs in the National Hockey League located in the United States and Canada.

A clear picture has still not emerged as to when the postseason will commence and when the Stanley Cup Finals will take place. Bettman feels training camps will not open “before the first half of July”, which means that the season could start in August and the postseason may take place in September.

This could mean that US broadcast partner National Broadcasting Company (NBC) may have a clash between the Stanley Cup Finals and the start of the new National Football League (NFL) season, assuming that league begins on its normal timetable as intended. They might have to see-saw between the two events.

It may also mean that the 2020-21 NHL season – which is still planned to be held in full – could start in January 2021, rather than December as has been previously suggested. If this is the scenario, non-playoff teams will be cooling their heels for eight or nine months.

“We’re going to be playing over the summer this year, so the answer is we’ll get through this season and we’ll make sure there’s enough of a pause between the end of this season and next, and then we’ll start up again,” Bettman remarked.

Media reports stated that the majority of play-in games are likely to be beamed on local regional sports networks in order to satisfy contractual requirements that have not yet been met as the 2019-20 regular season stands canceled.

Several other details still remain to be worked out, including whether the first two rounds of the playoffs are best-of-five or best-of-seven games. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series, Bettman informed.

The Stanley Cup Finals in ice hockey is the NHL championship series to determine the winner of the Stanley Cup, North America’s oldest professional sports trophy.

“As we seek some return to normalcy, this is an important day for NHL fans. Since March 12, we’ve been hopeful and optimistic that by developing all options and alternatives, we could get to this point. I know I join sports fans everywhere when I say we cannot wait for the players to hit the ice again,” Bettman said in a live telecast.

Unions’ leaders were cautiously optimistic with the emerging plans – “This is a meaningful start, I think, but it’s only a start,” NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr told mediapersons.

“We have to make sure that we can actually implement all the things which are necessary in order to protect the health and safety of the players and all the rest of the staff,” he further observed.

The NHL has already put on hold the 2020 NHL Scouting Combine, which was scheduled for June 1-6 in Buffalo, New York, the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Awards, set for June 18 in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the 2020 NHL Draft, which was due to be held on June 26-27 in Montreal, Canada. It has also called off its planned regular-season games in Europe this year as a result of the worsening coronavirus crisis.

To make up for it, the NHL created a players-only esports tournament, among many other initiatives, to keep fans engaged.

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