The NHL announces its 24-team play-in and playoff format, and Toronto could factor in any scenario

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league and the NHL players’ association have agreed on a return-to-play format in the event the 2019-20 season can resume.

The 24-team plan would see the top-four clubs the Eastern and Western Conference play separate mini round-robin tournaments to determine seeding for the playoffs. The other eight teams in each conference would play best-of-five “play-in” qualifying series to determine the 16 clubs left standing.

Bettman says the first- and second-round playoff matchups could be either best-of-five or best-of-seven series, but the conference finals and Stanley Cup final will be best-of-seven.

The teams would play in two hub cities, one for Eastern Conference teams and one for Western Conference clubs. Bettman said the hub cities have yet to be determined, but Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver are on the league’s short list.

Tuesday’s announcement is an important step in the league’s bid to resume the season, which was suspended March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but does not guarantee a return to action.

“At the pause, we committed to resuming play only when appropriate and prudent,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “We are hopeful the return to play plan will allow us to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup in a manner in which the health and safety of our players, on-ice officials, team staff and associated individuals involved are paramount. Accordingly, an essential component of the plan is a rigorous, regular schedule of testing.”

The NHL and its players still have plenty of work to do, including receiving the go-ahead from government and health officials, timing, the location of hub cities, testing procedures and ensuring the safety of everyone involved.

The union’s executive board — made up of a player representative from each team — approved the 24-club format mapped out by the NHL/NHLPA’s Return To Play Committee in a vote Friday. Bettman says the NHL’s board of governors also gave the thumbs up to the format this week.

The NHL announced Monday it hopes to move to Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol, which would include the opening of team facilities and allow for groups of up to six players on the ice at one time, early next month. Phase 3 would be training camps, while Phase 4 would be the resumption of play.

More coming.

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