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NHLPA Executive Board approves NHL’s proposed return to play format

Last Updated May 23, 2020 at 10:53 am MDT

The St. Louis Blues celebrate with the Stanley Cup after they defeated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The NHLPA Executive Board approved the NHL’s return to play format, pending further negotiations on issues related to resuming play.

“The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup,” a statement from the NHLPA said. “Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.​”

Under the proposed framework, as reported by Elliotte Friedman Wednesday, the top four seeds — based on points percentage — in the East and the West qualify for the post-season. The next eight teams in each conference will compete in a best-of-five play-in series, with the winners going on to face each conference’s top seeds.

Both the top four in the West and the top four in the East would be given a bye from competing in this play-in tournament but would play games against each other before the playoffs begin.

In the Eastern Conference, the opening round will play out like this:

• 5. Pittsburgh vs. 12. Montreal (winner plays four seed)
• 6. Carolina vs. 11. Rangers (winner plays three seed)
• 7. Islanders vs. 10. Florida (winner plays two seed)
• 8. Toronto vs. 9. Columbus (winner plays one seed)

And the Western Conference opening round shakes out as follows:

• 5. Edmonton vs. 12. Chicago (winner plays four seed)
• 6. Nashville vs. 11. Arizona (winner plays three seed)
• 7. Vancouver vs. 10. Minnesota (winner plays two seed)
• 8. Calgary vs. 9. Winnipeg (winner plays one seed)

Once the play-in tournament has concluded, the playoffs will be “bracketed” — similar to what is done in the NCAA tournament — meaning any of the top-four teams in the East or West could actually end up facing the lowest remaining seed following the play-in round. For example, the No. 4 seed could face No. 12 Montreal (in the event the Canadiens pulled off an upset over No. 5 Pittsburgh), while the No. 1 seed would be left with the winner of No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus.

While having an agreed upon playoff framework is a meaningful step forward, there are other critical elements that would still have to be ironed out such as testing protocols, visas and whether or not the league intends to use hub cities.

The NHL is still without a firm timeline for when it will be able to resume activities after having its season paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.