NHL moves ahead with 24-team playoff format if play resumes

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FILE - In this May 27, 2019, file photo, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media before Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals between the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins, in Boston. The NHL is one step closer to returning. Bettman unveiled a 24-team straight to playoffs format the league will use if it can clear the other hurdles to resume its season. Under the plan approved last week by players and agreed to by the NHL, the top four teams in each conference will play for seeding while the other 16 face off in best-of-five series to determine the field to vie for the Stanley Cup .(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

The NHL will abandon the rest of the regular season and go straight into the playoffs with 24 teams instead of 16 — if it is able to resume play.

The decision, announced Tuesday by Commissioner Gary Bettman, is no guarantee that games are coming back. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association must still figure out health and safety protocols and solve other issues.

"This is a meaningful start, I think, but it’s only a start," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told The Associated Press after the announcement. “We have to make sure that we can actually implement all the things which are necessary in order to protect the health and safety of the players and all the rest of the staff.”

Still, ironing out the format and narrowing down its two potential playoff host cities to a list of 10 represents significant progress since global sports were largely shut down in March as the coronavirus outbreak turned into a pandemic. Play could resume in late July or early August, with the Stanley Cup Final in September or even later.

“Realistically if we’re in training camp mid-July, that would be a good thing, and if we can be playing by the end of July or the beginning of August, that would be a good thing too,” Bettman said. “But if it has to slide more, then it’ll slide. There’s a reason that we’re not giving you dates now because anybody who gives you a date is guessing, and we think we’d rather take a more holistic approach to doing this.”

Groups of 12 teams representing each of the two conferences will be limited to playing in two cities, yet to be determined, with three-week training camps opening no earlier than July 1. Voluntary workouts could begin in early June.

“We hope this is a step back toward normalcy,” Bettman said. “We think we’ve been able to work very collaboratively with the Players’ Association and the players to come up with a framework that is fair and has integrity and should result in a terrific, competitive playoffs and the awarding of the best trophy in all of sports.”

Earlier this week, the league and NHLPA issued extensive protocols once players are allowed to return to their facilities. They include a maximum of six players on the ice at a time, no contact and no coaches for voluntary workouts.