There is now some momentum toward the NHL resuming play at some point over the next couple of months. Late Friday night, the NHLPA announced that it voted to proceed with discussions on the 24-team playoff format that was proposed by the league. Their full statement was as follows:
"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. 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."
TVA Sports’ Renaud Lavoie notes that the vote wound up being quite close to unanimous with only two of the 31 player reps voting no.
Under this format, the top four seeds in each conference would each get a bye through the play-in round which would see the other 16 teams play a best-of-five series to whittle the field down to a usual 16. However, as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston notes, the exact format hasn’t been ratified. The league would like to use a bracketed system, while the players seem to prefer a system with reseeding after each round. A decision also has to be made on whether or not the round-robin games that the top four teams will play to stay in shape will determine seeding or if they will just be to get them in playing shape. After such a long layoff, that will be an interesting call to make to see if they’re just glorified exhibition games or if they’ll have a lot of importance.
The vote to move ahead from the NHLPA doesn’t come as much of a surprise as there had been some momentum in these talks in recent days. While the 24-team format isn’t the most popular with all players or teams, it does allow them to recoup some extra lost revenue as well as solve any concerns about bubble teams not getting a chance to wrap up the regular season and push for a spot in a standard 16-team format.
While this is an important and notable step toward games resuming, there is a lot that still has to be resolved. The NHL has to determine which hub cities will be used, secure COVID-19 testing capability as well as design other health and safety protocols, figure out how to ease the concerns of players potentially being separated from their families for an extended period of time, and likely make some sort of amendment to their health care plans to add in coverage for long-term effects if a player gets infected with the disease.
And, of course, a decision has to be made on when this could all happen. The league is hopeful that players will soon be able to return to their club cities to resume training, but there is a lot of red tape to get through there in terms of international travel, self-quarantine guidelines and the fact that the various states and provinces are currently at different levels of what is and isn’t permissible in terms of gatherings.
There is still a rather large mountain to climb before the puck can drop on the 2020 postseason, but with a basic agreement now in place on the number of teams that will be playing, this is at least a big step in that direction.
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