The NHL on Friday took its biggest step yet toward returning to play when the NHL Players’ Association signed off on a plan for a 24-team playoff format.
The next step is hammering out the remaining details — including health and safety protocols — for the league to resume play after being on hiatus for the past 10 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The NHLPA’s executive board, made up of 31 player representatives, “has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup,” the union said in a statement.
“Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format still would be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”
Under the joint NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee plan that the union OK’d during a vote that began Thursday night, the 24-team field would include games at hub locations and likely without fans in attendance. The top four teams in the Eastern and Western conferences would receive byes but play a round-robin series that could impact first-round seeding.
Meanwhile, the remaining eight teams per conference would square off in best-of-five play-in series to cut the field to 16. From there, traditional best-of-seven series would follow through the Stanley Cup Final.
The seven teams outside the playoffs would not return to play.
Under the plan, which seeds teams by points percentage in the standings when the season was suspended March 12, the Wild would be the No. 10 seed in the West and face No. 7 Vancouver in a best-of-five series.
The byes would go to St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the Western Conference, and Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the Eastern.
The details remaining are many:
• Where would games be played? Earlier this week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league was looking at eight or nine cities to be hubs for games, and choosing two or four.
St. Paul is interested in being one of those hubs. Las Vegas, with its abundance of hotels, is considered a strong candidate to be a hub city. Expect one of the hubs to be in Canada. A two-hub system would have 12 teams at each city, while a four-hub plan would have six squads at each site.
• What about the health of the players amid COVID-19? Major issues such as testing and safety measures would be addressed by the Return to Play committee.
• What’s next? The NHL Board of Governors will vote on the 24-team format and is expected to pass it, then the Return to Play committee would address health and safety issues.
• When would the NHL return? That’s to be determined, but early July seems to be the league’s goal.
• Besides the top four seeds in each conference, who’s in? The play-in series in the West would be: No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg, No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Wild, and No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Phoenix.
In the East, the play-in series would have: No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus, No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 7 N.Y. Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida, and No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 N.Y. Rangers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.