We know a lot more about the NHL’s 2019-20 season than we did a day ago after Gary Bettman made a return to play announcement Tuesday afternoon. The basics of the plan are these: twelve teams from each conference will make the show, judged by points percentage. The top four will play a seeding round robin. The next eight will play best-of-five series to knock four of them out. At that point, you’d have eight teams left in each conference, so kinda-sorta normalcy, except that the Commissioner isn’t guaranteeing that any but the final two sets of series will be seven-gamers. They might stay with the five-game format up until the conference finals.
Five-game series will still have NHL playoff OT rules. The round-robin games will be regular-season OT rules.
Speaking of the regular season, it is officially deemed to be finished as of now for the purposes of record-keeping and awards. Smart move, that, because now people can start the debates about who should get the Calder, Norris, and other trophies, which at least will give sports talk and online sources something real to talk about after so long a hiatus (since March 12, just in case it’s seemed longer to you).
The playoffs will take place in two hub cities, not named (though Bettman did give a list of possibles, including a city with no playoff hopes, Los Angeles). The Final, when two teams emerge, will also take place in one of those hub cities.
Of the ten possibles Bettman named, three were Canadian—Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver. That leaves Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh along with LA.
Just to editorialize on that, let’s call that point unfinalized. This plan is going to take the late summer and early fall. Who knows what will have happened as far as reopening by then (though at least the California mayors and governors aren’t sweating their various “no way are we having spectators watch live sports in this state until at least next calendar year,” at least until the hubs are announced—no California teams make the playoffs this year).
And indeed, there are a number of things that are not decided in this whole thing, as Bettman said. So what you have here, at best, is a guesstimate that at least tells fans that something is happening. Just to throw it out there, I’d like camps to open July 1st, since that day won’t be Free Agent Frenzy day this year. Or will it? If the bossman said anything about that, I missed it. Lots to do here in terms of getting this thing really back on the rails.
Here are some points that I don’t think were covered in the announcement:
Do these round-robin games count towards playoff scoring records? What about the initial five-game series? In theory, a club who played to the max there and in all other series could tally as many as 33 games (four series of seven and one of five) or some derivative of that (31, 29) if some series are five-gamers. That would mean that those extra five games at the start could skew records.
Want about the fans? Will anyone get to see the games? If I’m not mistaken, the Commish didn’t actually say anything about that. Maybe it’s assumed that nobody will be in the arenas. Or maybe they’re hopeful or planning some kind of limited fan engagement.
Media coverage? NASCAR has resumed, as you know, with skeleton media crews (two at-track/pit reporters instead of a slew, for one thing) and a small media pool that gets to broadcast information for others to use. So far, those races have gone well. Is that what we will see with the NHL resumption?
And then there’s the draft lottery. The system is highly complicated and entirely up in the air as of now, since more than the seven non-playoff teams get odds. I’m going to leave that one for someone else to try to sort out.
So just to reiterate the timeline: teams may return in early June and do individual and small-group workouts. Training camps will be in the first half of July. The play-ins and playoffs will happen in the late summer-early fall, and Bettman said that one goal was that for this format to allow for a timeframe that will allow a full calendar for the 2020-21 season. No idea what the actual timeframe will be, but these playoffs could go well into the leaf-turning months.
He also said, and this is probably the point that needs the most emphasis, “This plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion.”