NHL finalizes 24-team playoff format for return-to-play plan
Pittsburgh Penguins reveal player tested positive for COVID-19, has recovered
The NHL announced Thursday that every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout if the league is able to return with its 24-team plan later this summer.
The announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive for the coronavirus. The team said the unidentified player was not in Pittsburgh, was isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered.
So far, nine NHL players have tested positive: five from Ottawa, three from Colorado and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what it has said could be 24 teams playing each other in two hub cities.
"We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players," Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. "We've got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we're a few months into this pandemic, we don't know what the long term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered."
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The NHL has not announced the start of voluntary workouts or a firm timeline for training camps and the resumption of games. But the final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.
"We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons," Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. "We've told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we're happy to abide by it."
The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.
"Those games are going to be competitive," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.
Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.
"Everybody is used to a best of seven," Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. "You know how it's structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best of seven."
Having each series be best of seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.
"Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best of seven ... I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they'll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them," Tavares said.
Voluntary workouts to begin Monday
The league, which was forced to pause its schedule in March because of COVID-19 and declared the regular season completed last week, will start Phase 2 of its overarching return-to-play protocol Monday. That would see practice facilities opened up to small groups of players for on- and off-ice workouts under strict health and safety restrictions.
The hope is teams will be able to hold training camps (Phase 3) sometime in July before resuming play either later that month or in early August (Phase 4).
With files from The Canadian Press