The Lightning reportedly were one of two teams to vote against a proposed 24-team return-to-play plan in balloting by NHL Players Association representatives.
The union announced late Friday that it had authorized moving forward in talks with the league on returning to play from the coronavirus suspension with 24 teams in a playoff tournament. The union did not provide a breakdown of the vote of its 31 player representatives. Canada’s TVA Sports network reported that the vote was 29-2. Nick Kypreos, a former NHL player and former analyst for Canada’s Sportsnet, said on Twitter that the Lightning and Hurricanes voted no.
Under the plan proposed by the joint NHL/union Return to Play Committee, the season would resume with 24 teams in a playoff tournament. The other seven teams’ seasons would be over.
Of the 24 advancing, the top four teams in each of the Eastern and Western conferences based on points percentage would start with a bye and play each other for playoff seeding while the other 16 would face off in a best-of-five play-in round to set the final 16 to compete for the Stanley Cup.
The top four teams in the East would be Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia; the top four in the West would be defending champion St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas. Pittsburgh, Carolina, the New York Islanders and Rangers, Toronto, Columbus, Florida and Montreal would also make it in the East. Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Arizona and Chicago would also make it in the West.
On a media video call Thursday, Lightning player representative Alex Killorn shared concerns about the setup of having the top four teams in each conference start by playing against each other in essentially exhibition games.
“The only problem I have with that format is that the top teams that have a bye, I don’t know how competitive their games will be,” he said. “Where the teams that are in the bottom will be playing playoff games straight away and potentially will be more prepared for once the real playoffs start after the play-in happens.”
It’s an interesting point for a Lightning player to make coming off what happened to Tampa Bay in last season’s playoffs. After the Lightning were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round, Killorn was one of many players and coaches to point to the lack of adversity the team had faced leading up to the playoffs.
The Lightning strolled into the playoffs without having played a meaningful game in the final month of the regular season. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, secured their spot in the final games and carried momentum into the postseason.
“There’s not going to be any way to (resume the season this year) that satisfies everyone,” Killorn said Thursday. “We’re just going to be as fair as possible. Whatever it is, we’re going to have to find a way to play with it.”
Several details are still to be negotiated before games can begin after the season was shut down because of the coronavirus March 12.
Kris Letang, the Penguins’ player representative, echoed Killorn’s thoughts on no team getting exactly what it wanted in the 24-team plan. He told Sportsnet on Friday that he voted in favor of the proposal. Some players shared strong opinions on a Thursday conference call, he said, “but we have a union for everyone to express our views. Whatever the format is, some agree, some don’t. As a union, we want to make the best decisions over time, the greater good for everyone.”
The proposal now goes to the league’s board of governors, which is expected to approve it in the next few days.
Under the 24-team format, the traditional four rounds of seven-game series would be played after the play-in round.
If the board of governors approves the 24-team plan, the who of returning would be set. The where, when and how still would have to be determined, including how many cities would host games and the guidelines for quarantine regulations and coronavirus testing.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said this past week that the league was looking at eight or nine locations to serve as hub cities for the resumption of the season.
It’s unclear when the league and players would agree to begin the second phase of preparations for return, which would be the reopening of team practice facilities and voluntary workouts. The following step would then likely be a three-week training camp before games resume.
Canada’s teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their buildings.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.