The Associated Press
The NHL Players’ Association’s executive committee authorized moving forward in talks with the league on returning to play from the coronavirus suspension, approving 24 teams making the playoffs with other aspects still to be negotiated
The NHLPA did not provide a breakdown of the vote of its 31 player representatives in making the announcement Friday night, a day after the proposal was presented to the union’s executive board. In giving the format the green light, the NHLPA stressed several details still need to be negotiated before games can begin.
The proposal will now go to the NHL board of governors, which is expected to approve the plan in the next few days. Once approved, the proposal effectively ends the season of the league’s bottom seven teams.
Under the plan proposed by the NHL/NHLPA Return To Play committee, the top four teams in each conference would play each other in a mini-tournament for seeding while the remaining 16 teams face off in a best-of-five series play-in round to set the final 16 to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Though the approval is considered significant, the task of establishing a path to getting players back on the ice remains challenging.
The next step would have the Return To Play committee sort out a host of other issues, ranging from health and safety protocols to determining where games will be played, with the league preparing to group teams in a select number of hub cities.
Las Vegas has become the city most mentioned as a potential site, particularly because of its large concentration of hotels that could house numerous teams. Other cities mentioned include Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; Raleigh, North Carolina; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Edmonton, Alberta.
Numerous other questions remain unanswered, including when players can return to their respective teams and what non-playoff teams will be allowed to do during what could potentially become a 10-month break between games.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league has a plan in place, but stopped short of providing details by saying it would be premature to do so at this time.
“All good questions and all questions with answers. But not in a position to answer any of them at this point in time,” Daly wrote in an email. “If and when we are in a position to make an announcement, we will try to make sure they are answered in that context.”
At the very least, the league has the framework of a plan on which to build off for the first time since the regular season was placed on pause on March 12.
Games would likely be played without fans present. It’s unclear how the league will address players’ concerns over spending potentially lengthy stretches of time in self-isolation away from their families.
Both sides agree there is no ideal plan, while acknowledging the limitations they face because of the uncertainty created by the pandemic. The NHL’s regular season was paused on March 12, with 189 games remaining and its 31 teams having played an uneven number of games.
“Obviously, it’s not ideal, but I think in a time like this, how can anything be super traditional?” Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie said this week. “I think we all have to adapt and be willing to adapt and kind of realize that it’s not going to be this perfect, classic NHL playoffs. I think for the situation we’re in, for a year, I think that’s fine.”
Under the proposed 24-team format, Montreal would be the final team to qualify in the East based on a slim points-percentage margin. With 71 points in 71 games (.500), the Canadiens edge out Buffalo, which had 68 points in 69 games (.493) and would extend the league’s longest active playoff drought to a ninth consecutive season.
The difference in the West is much larger, with Chicago (.514) beating out Anaheim (.472). All three California teams would miss the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96.
A person with what would be one of the seven non-playoff teams told The AP the performance staff is already preparing workout programs for players during what will be a long layoff.
“Overall, I think players will be fine during the summer months,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the return to play format has not been approved. “Finding creative ways to keep them motivated in the fall will be the challenge.”
The NHL is open to having the playoffs extend into September and pushing the start of the 2020-21 season as late as January — or when fans can begin attending games in some capacity.
Whatever it takes, Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine said Friday.
“I just want to play, and I can do whatever format they decide,” Laine said. “It’s just still hockey, but I don’t mind the format. It’s not an issue for me.”
Carolina Hurricanes player representative Jordan Martinook said finishing the season and awarding the Stanley Cup would be a considerable feat.
“In a year of such negativity and uncertainty, for you to have that kind of celebration, I feel like it would be a big positive for you, your family, your team, your city,” Martinook said.