The NHL will abandon the rest of the regular season and go straight into the playoffs with 24 teams instead of 16 — if it is able to resume play.
The decision, announced Tuesday by Commissioner Gary Bettman, is no guarantee that games are coming back. The NHL and the NHL Players' Association must still figure out health and safety protocols and solve other issues.
"This is a meaningful start, I think, but it's only a start," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told The Associated Press after the announcement. "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."
Still, ironing out the format and narrowing down its two potential playoff host cities to a list of 10 represents significant progress since global sports were largely shut down in March as the coronavirus outbreak turned into a pandemic. Play could resume in late July or early August, with the Stanley Cup Final in September or even later.
"Realistically if we're in training camp mid-July, that would be a good thing, and if we can be playing by the end of July or the beginning of August, that would be a good thing too," Bettman said. "But if it has to slide more, then it'll slide. There's a reason that we're not giving you dates now because anybody who gives you a date is guessing, and we think we'd rather take a more holistic approach to doing this."
Groups of 12 teams representing each of the two conferences will be limited to playing in two cities, yet to be determined, with three-week training camps opening no earlier than July 1. Voluntary workouts could begin in early June.
"We hope this is a step back toward normalcy," Bettman said. "We think we've been able to work very collaboratively with the 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 the awarding of the best trophy in all of sports."
Earlier this week, the league and NHLPA issued extensive protocols once players are allowed to return to their facilities. They include a maximum of six players on the ice at a time, no contact and no coaches for voluntary workouts.
Teams will be responsible for testing during those workouts and training camp, with the league taking over when games begin. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said players would be tested for COVID-19 daily.
Instead of limiting the Cup chase to the usual 16 teams that qualify for the playoffs, the league and players agreed to expand the field to 24 of its 31 teams because of the unusual circumstances.
This means the likes of the Montreal Canadiens are still alive despite being nine points out of a playoff spot when hockey was halted March 12. But not all teams will have the same path to hockey's storied trophy.
The top four teams in each conference ranked by points percentage — Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West — will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding.
The remaining 16 teams will be seeded by conference, setting up best-of-five series in the East of No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 New York Rangers, No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus. In the West, it would be No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Arizona, No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Minnesota and No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg.
These games will be played without fans.
"It's completely different than what the norm is," Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin said. "I think we all understand how unique this year is and how crazy it's been. We've just kind of got to roll with it a little bit."
Games are expected to be played in two hub cities and Bettman said 10 are in the running: Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis/St. Paul in the U.S. and Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. The Canadian government's mandatory 14-day quarantine could force the NHL to pick two U.S. locales.
"The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players' ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won't be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city," Daly said. "We're faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can."
While there are still details to work out, including whether the first two rounds are best of five or seven, Bettman said he expects the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final to be played in full in one of the two hub cities. Each team would be limited to a total of 50 people in the city it plays in.
"It's not easy getting everybody on board with all the different countries, the players, the teams that were in the playoffs, teams that may not be in the playoffs and getting that all agreed upon with the union," Buffalo Sabres owner Kim Pegula told The AP. "For us to even finish the season and award (the Stanley Cup), I know a lot of work went into it. But I know how important it was for our players, our fans, our league to make sure that we conclude it."
The decision to call off the 189 regular-season games that were not played ends the season for Buffalo, New Jersey, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa and Detroit.
Those seven teams will now prepare for one of potentially two draft lotteries to determine the top 15 selections. The lottery will be held June 26, with another scheduled later depending on which of the remaining eight teams qualify for the 16-team playoff.
The NHL is still planning for a full 82-game 2020-21 season, though Bettman acknowledged the start could be as late as early January. It could mean nine months or more without game action for players on non-playoff teams.
"Among the long list of things that we haven't come to grips with is that," Fehr said. "There are a lot of things that have yet to be talked about."