Nearly 11 weeks after the NHL suspended its season because of the coronavirus outbreak, commissioner Gary Bettman gave a fuzzy outline on the league’s return-to-play plan Tuesday.
Bettman did not give precise dates on when voluntary small-group workouts could begin, or when training camps would start, or when the season would resume.
The league did reveal that the top four teams in each conference that play in a round-robin tournament before the playoffs will each be competing for the No. 1 seed.
In other words, the Flyers, fourth-seeded in the Eastern Conference, could become the No. 1 seed if they win the mini-tourney -- despite collecting 11 fewer regular-season points than Boston.
The round-robin is for seeding purposes only, and the top four East teams are Boston (100 points), Tampa Bay (92), Washington (90), and the Flyers (89).
If the Flyers remained at No. 4 and the NHL used a seeding format, they would face the Pittsburgh-Montreal play-in winner in the first round of the playoffs.
Small-group workouts will begin in early June, and a 24-team tournament will be used when the season restarts. After a play-in round, 16 teams will compete for the Stanley Cup.
“We anticipate playing over the summer and into the fall,” Bettman said, adding “things are evolving rapidly.”
Said Bettman: “Fans are telling us in overwhelming numbers they want to complete the season.”
The NHL plans to make as much as $500 million in TV revenue if the playoffs are completed, according to reports.
Bettman reiterated that the season wouldn’t continue until medical experts said it was safe.
Bettman said that “anybody who gives you a date [to resume the season] is guessing,” but added that late July or early August were possible.
In another matter, Bettman said the NHL draft, originally scheduled to be held June 26-27 in Montreal, will take place after the playoffs. The draft lottery will be held June 26 and it will determine the order of the top three picks. Fifteen teams can win one of those picks: the seven that are not playing in the tournament, and the eight teams eliminated in play-in rounds.
As had already been made public, Bettman said 24 teams -- 12 from each conference, based on points percentage -- will compete in the NHL’s tournament, and each conference will be assigned a still-to-be-named hub city. Each club can bring 50 personnel members to the games.
The plan, Bettman said, will produce a “worthy Stanley Cup champion."
Philadelphia is not being considered as a hub city. The cities under consideration include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas (the West favorite), Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Vancouver.
The NHL is considering not allowing teams to play in their own hub city, thereby removing any perceived advantage, according to Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner.
Bettman said a formal training camp can begin no earlier than July 1, and probably later. That means the 24-team tourney can’t start until late July or early August.
“We hope this is a step back toward normalcy,” Bettman said of the NHL’s planned return.
The commissioner said after play-in games are finished, it has not been decided if the teams will be reseeded, which is the players’ choice.
The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series. The length of the first two playoff rounds, Bettman said, has not been decided yet; they will be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series.
It should take a little over a month to play the play-in round and the first two playoff rounds, Bettman said.
As for Phase 2 of what the NHL calls a four-part return-to-play plan, only six players will be allowed to be on the ice at the same time and they will not be permitted to have contact. The Flyers’ training facility is the Skate Zone in Voorhees.
No coaches will be allowed on the ice, but they can observe the players, the NHL said.
Players would be tested for the coronavirus two days before they return to small-group sessions, and they will be tested twice each week. In addition, their temperatures will be checked daily. Teams will assume the costs of testing until games are held, which is when the NHL will be responsible for the bills. Bettman said the NHL may do between 25,000 and 30,000 tests.
Phase 3 is training camp, which is expected to last three weeks, and Phase 4 is the resumption of the season.
On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association’s executive committee overwhelmingly approved a 24-team format for when the league returns. The vote was 29-2, and the Flyers voted in favor of the plan.
The Flyers (41-28-7) had won nine of their last 10 games and were the league’s hottest team when the season was halted. They had advanced into second place in the Metropolitan Division, one point behind the Capitals (41-28-8).
Teams had from 11 to 14 games remaining when the season was stopped.
Bettman said the regular season has been completed, so final stats and awards will be based on what has already transpired.
As for next season, Bettman said the NHL plans to play a full 82-game schedule. Next season could start as late as January, he said.
Here are the best-of-five play-in matchups:
Pittsburgh (5) vs. Montreal (12); Carolina (6) vs. Rangers (11); Islanders (7) vs. Florida (10); Toronto (8) vs. Columbus (9).
Top seeds before round-robin tourney: Boston, Tampa, Washington, Flyers.
Edmonton (5) vs. Chicago (12); Nashville (6) vs. Arizona (11); Vancouver (7) vs. Minnesota (10); Calgary (8) vs. Winnipeg (9).