NHL makes 24-team return to play format official, lays out draft lottery process


In a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the official NHL return to play format, the long-awaited and much-debated 24-team straight-to-playoffs  format to conclude the 2019–20 season and award the Stanley Cup.

The NHLPA voted last week to approve the 24-team format proposed by the Return to Play committee. The top four teams in each conference would play each other in a mini-tournament to decide seeding, while seeds five through 12 in each conference would play a best-of-five “play-in” round.

In his news conference, Bettman said the Return To Play committee was still deciding whether the format would be a bracket or use reseeding, as well as if the playoff round where the field would be down to 16 teams, would remain a best-of-seven games or use a best-of-five games format like in the play-in round.

Also, the play-in round will not be considered “playoffs,” as pointed out by The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun:

The league released a memo Monday announcing it targeted early June as the start date for Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol. Phase 2 includes the opening of practice rinks and allowing small, voluntary group workouts on and off the ice.

According to the 29-page memo, “It has not yet been determined when precisely Phase 2 will start or how long it may last. We are continuing to monitor developments in each of the club’s markets, and may adjust the overall timing if appropriate, following discussion with all relevant parties.”

In his news conference, Bettman deemed the 2019–20 season officially closed. Regular season awards can be voted on and regular season records and stats will be final as of March 12.

Bettman said that he did not believe that NHL training camps, which are part of Phase 3 of the return to play process, would be open before the first half of July.

On the topic of the NHL Draft Lottery, Bettman made clear that there would be 15 teams eligible for the lottery for the top three picks of the draft: The seven teams already eliminated from any postseason play, and the eight teams that will be eliminated during the play-in round.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie broke down the draft process:

Everyone clear? Good.

There are still massive amounts of details for the NHL to iron out before the 24-team playoff format can actually begin, including testing procedures, hub cities for games to be played and safety of the teams and personnel involved in making these games happen.

On the subject of hub cities to host the play-in rounds and the playoffs, TSN’s Frank Seravalli and The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline and Thomas Drance gave insight prior to Bettman’s Tuesday news conference:

Bettman confirmed in his news conference that there are 10 cities being considered, including Chicago, Columbus, Las Vegas, Edmonton, Dallas, St. Paul (Minnesota), Vancouver, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Hub city considerations were based around testing capacity, local government quarantine policies and the caseloads in the cities considered. Bettman estimated the two conference hub cities will be selected within the next three or four weeks.

The league taking these first steps are a hopeful sign toward completing the 2019–20 season and naming a 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

The Stanley Cup has been awarded every year since 1893, with two exceptions: 1919 because of the Spanish flu outbreak and 2005 when the league’s lockout led to the cancellation of the entire 2004–05 season.

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