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What we know, and don’t know, about the NHL’s plan to return

The league announced a format, but many questions still must be answered before we see games, including if the season will resume at all.
Goals used by the Nashville Predators are stored in a hallway in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., in March.
Goals used by the Nashville Predators are stored in a hallway in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., in March. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]
Published May 27, 2020
Updated May 27, 2020

TAMPA — The resumption of the NHL season will be almost like a reset or a do-over, Lightning coach Jon Cooper says. Coaches have had an offseason’s worth of time to evaluate their teams but will return with the same group.

That’s an opportunity teams don’t have in a normal season. Tweaks are made throughout, but things are constantly moving. The time to sit back and really think about things comes once the season is over. And teams rarely begin the next season with the same group it had the one before.

Related: Tampa is not a hub city in the NHL's 24-team return to play plan

Cooper points to the Lightning’s first game against the Blue Jackets this season. The pregame hype focused on a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff series in which Tampa Bay was swept, but the Feb. 10 game featured 15 new players.

With the NHL announcing a format for resuming its season after shutting down March 12 because of the coronavirus, “(now) you get to sit back and say, ‘What were we good at? What weren’t we good at? Can we improve with this group?’ ” Cooper said on NBCSN’s Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico on Wednesday. “You’re going against the same competition. You’re bringing your exact same team back.”

The format for a potential return, presented Tuesday after approval by the players association, ends the regular season for seven teams and has the other 24, including the Lightning, continuing to play. But a lot of pieces are still to be determined — including if the season will actually resume.

When would they play?

First, no one has decided for sure the season will resume. All that has been approved is the format if it does.

Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk, a veteran of the players association, told the website The Athletic there likely will be a full-membership vote on whether players want to come back, as opposed to a vote of team player representatives, which is how the return-to-play format was voted on.

“There’s so much uncertainty with everything that’s gone on in the world, and different guys feel different ways when it comes to return-to-play and health and safety,” Dubnyk said. “It’s difficult, because in the past, I’ve always had good confidence in voting on things and knowing that I was voting for what the guys would want. In this scenario, it’s hard because a lot of stuff is split down the middle or very close.”

If the season does resume, the earliest games could be played is late July. Training camps would not start before July and would likely run three weeks, but the league is looking to medical professionals for guidance on their timing.

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Where would they play?

The NHL narrowed the list of potential hub cities to 10 Tuesday. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league probably needs to make a decision in three to four weeks in order to put plans in place. That decision will be made with respect to available facilities (arena, practice ice, hotel, etc.) and the development of the coronavirus.

The league is not worried about having a city in each conference or a Canadian-American split. Canada’s current mandatory 14-day strict quarantine for anyone entering the country would be a deal-breaker, but the league is attempting to negotiate that.

The 10 options are: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Vancouver.

Would games be playoffs or regular season?

They might be something in between. The NHL said that for the purpose of record keeping and awards, the regular season has been deemed over but also that the playoffs start when the 24 advancing teams have been narrowed to 16 after a qualifying round of play.

Players association executive director Don Fehr told ESPN, “We haven’t decided where the statistics from the playoff round are going to go yet. It hasn’t been done.”

Related: Good grief. Are Lightning players really worrying about a bye?

Why aren’t the Lightning automatically a No. 2 seed?

The top 12 teams from each conference, according to points percentage, would advance. The Lightning were second in the Eastern Conference when the league stopped play. The top four teams in each conference would receive a bye from the qualifying round, but that wouldn’t translate to their playoff seeding.

While the bottom eight teams in each conference play a best-of-five series for a spot in the first round of the playoffs, in the East, the Lightning, Bruins, Capitals and Flyers would play a three-game round-robin to determine their playoff seeding.

The Lightning voted against the return-to-play format because they didn’t like the idea of starting with exhibition games while other teams jumped into competition. Playing for seeding would make those games count for something.

Would rosters be expanded?

Yes. It’s not clear what the roster limit would be, but you could expect to see some players from AHL Syracuse added to the Lightning’s roster. They would be eligible to play immediately.

Related: Joe Maddon uncorks with Bruce Arians on his YouTube show

What would this mean for next season?

If this season resumes, next season will not start on time. The league has made clear it wants a full 82-game season next year, but that’s it.

“There’s no magic to starting in October,” Bettman said. “Our buildings, our markets can handle it. We can start in November, we can start in December, we can start the beginning of January if we had to.”

The Summer Olympics, postponed from this year until 2021, are scheduled to start July 23, so the playoffs would have to be completed by then.

The league has models for an 82-game season plus playoffs that run January through June. The season would be compressed but complete.