The NHL's coronavirus pause: Updates to the playoff format, more questions as team facilities open

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Monday, June 8, 2020

It has been 88 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the cancellations and postponements around the world of sports continue, there also have been continuous nuggets of new information regarding the potential resumption of the season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all affects 2020-21.

As players, executives and fans continue to adjust to the new normal, we will provide updates every week, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL's relation to the pandemic. Although on-ice action remains on the shelf, there have been some intriguing developments since last week's update. Get caught up on it all here:

We got some more details on the return-to-play formatlast week. Break it down for me.

Emily Kaplan: The NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed that the qualifying round of the 24-team tournament will be best-of-five series and all four playoff rounds will be best-of-seven series. The sides also determined that the tournament will not be bracketed, but will be reseeded after every round.

The top four teams in each conference will play three round-robin games each to determine their seeding. The league said any ties at the end of round-robin play will be broken by regular-season points percentage.

There are still plenty of details to figure out, including a comprehensive plan for health and safety protocols for games. It's also notable that going for full seven-game series, instead of five-game series in the first and/or second playoff rounds, means the tournament could last as many as 68 days. Time could be of the essence if the NHL is battling against a potential second wave of the coronavirus in the fall.

Which side won out on the playoff format?

Greg Wyshynski: The players have supported making later playoff rounds unbracketed and ensuring the 16-team tournament had seven-games series. The NHL favored a bracketed tournament and floated the idea of five-game series in the first two rounds of the 16-team tournament due to time constraints. The players also wanted "meaningful games" for the top seeds -- hence the round-robin tournament for the top four teams in each conference. This format would appear to have answered many of their concerns, even if it remains imperfect.

The bottom line for many of the players on these 24 teams that will complete the season: that the tournament have a level of integrity that makes the risks in returning to play acceptable. By and large, the format they settled on does that, especially keeping the seven-game series in the round of 16.

"I think that keeps the integrity of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and prevents any excuses made for whoever ultimately wins the Cup. The best team should come out of this," said Blake Coleman of the Tampa Bay Lightning last week.

When these games are played, what advantages does the 'home team' get?

Wyshynski: In the qualifying round, the higher-seeded team will be designated the home team in Games 1, 2 and 5. In the later rounds, it will follow the traditional format of having the top seed as the "home team" in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. That includes the Stanley Cup Final, where the home team will be designated by having the higher regular-season points percentage.

The benefits are expected to be the same as they would be for home ice outside of the "hub city" arrangement. Home teams get the last change, meaning they get the matchups they want. Home teams get an advantage on faceoffs as well. Logistically, one assumes the home team in a hub city will get a tricked-out and larger locker room vs. the one designated for the road team.

What they won't have, of course, is the greatest hallmark of home-ice advantage: fan support. That's something players are still wrapping their brains around. Cam Talbot of the Calgary Flames, for example, can't quite conceive what a playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets is going to be like without the "White Out" and the "Sea of Red" in the stands.

"No, it's going to be so weird. I think that's one of the biggest things that no one can really wrap their head around right now: What is it gonna feel like being inside of the arena?" he told ESPN last week. "Is there still going to be a national anthem? There's not going to be anything going on around us when a goal is scored. You're going to be able to hear basically nothing except for the guys celebrating. Nothing to pump you up at home and nothing to battle through on the road. Sometimes, those are the best games: You get the other team's fans yelling at you and it just makes you want to play that much harder. Without fans in the stands, it takes away a lot of the atmosphere. We're going to have to create our own momentum, I guess. It's going to be a weird, weird feeling with no fans in the stands. That's the best part of playoff hockey."

Any update on when the NHL will appoint hub cities?

Wyshynski: The NHL continues to comb through the applicants for potential hub cities, keeping an eye on things such as testing capacity in the localities, rates of COVID-19 infection and local regulations.

"I think it's unlikely there's going to be an announcement for another 10 days to two weeks at the earliest," said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, in an interview with Sportsnet 590. "Obviously, the NHL is going through the cities, the logistics, the pros and cons of what each one would be. They're also dealing with the differing public health measures which may be in effect for those places, as well as any immigration issues that might arise. We're some times for being able to make that announcement, I think."

As mentioned here previously, Las Vegas has been a speculative front-runner for being one hub city. Although one wonders if the NHL has taken notice of the rather loose restrictions inside some casinos as Sin City reopens.

With team facilities opening up on Monday, that's a good sign, right?

Kaplan: It's a good sign because this is something the NHL had been aiming to get done for weeks now. That said, don't expect all 31 teams to open their doors Monday.

Since the Phase 2 protocols are so comprehensive and quite frankly, intense -- it calls for, among many other things, all teams to appoint a Club Facility Hygiene Officer -- many teams are still figuring out details before they get started. A league source suggested we could see facilities open "gradually" over the next two weeks. There are some teams with plenty of players who stuck around in town; Tampa Bay is a good example, just watch this well-produced videoLightning forward Alex Killorn posted on social media:

Other teams don't have many players in the market. I'm told that Montreal, for example, has fewer than five players who stuck around. So those teams have to figure out what makes sense for them.

If you need a refresher on what Phase 2 looks like, here are the basics: a maximum of six players can train at the team facilities at once. On-ice sessions are for players only, with no coaches or other team personnel allowed on the ice. Players must wear face coverings at all times, except when they are exercising or on the ice.

How are teams handling the opening of training facilities?

Wyshynski: Every NHL team seems to be approaching Phase 2 with different expectations and timelines.

For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins expect a hearty turnout of players when they return to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex beginning on Tuesday for training. All players and select staff permitted inside the facility will be tested for COVID-19 prior to participation. Those who test negative will be eligible for medical evaluations on Monday.

The Arizona Coyotesalso are doing COVID-19 testing in order to have players who test negative take part in medical evaluations on Monday ahead of returning to training facilities on Thursday.

The New York Islanders said about one-third of their team has remained on Long Island, and that workouts at Northwell Health Ice Center after Monday's reopening will be "very voluntary" for them. "As far as how many players will be coming or when they will start, I could not give that answer yet," GM Lou Lamoriello said during a conference call. "I'll be speaking to each and every one of them over the weekend. Everything has been satisfied for the players."

But the Carolina Hurricanes are in a different position. They won't be opening their training facility this week. According to the team, part of that decision is fueled by their new training facility not yet ready to be opened, and part of it is the players not yet requiring it. "There has been a lot of discussions with the players about what makes the most sense for them logistically. We have 7-8 guys still around [the Raleigh area], but as of now they seem content with whatever training arrangements they've made without us," said Hurricanes spokesman Mike Sundheim.

Then there are the Canadiens. TSN reported that the Canadiens are expected to open their practice facility on Thursday, but that given the quarantine rules in Canada, many players from outside the country prefer to continue their training elsewhere. But the Montreal Gazette reported that the Bell Sports Complex didn't have any ice as of Friday because "the Canadiens have laid off the staff that takes care of the ice." The paper said that the ice would be "in place and ready for players" by Thursday, though as noted above, there aren't many Canadiens players actually in the Montreal area currently.

When will training camps get started?

Kaplan: There were some rumors floating that training camps may be moved to August, but the league pushed back on that idea. In an email this week, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told me "further delaying the opening of Training Camps is not being discussed or considered."

That keeps the NHL on track to open training camps sometime in July. Training camps are expected to be roughly three weeks, however that's still something that needs to be negotiated between the league and players (Gary Bettman says he will seek player input here on what they feel is appropriate).

Are teams having their European players come back extra early, or continue to train overseas?

Kaplan: Bettman said that 17% of NHL players left North America to self-isolate. But no teams are allowed to require players to return to their playing cities yet; remember, Phase 2 is strictly voluntary.

Penguins star Evgeni Malkin posted a selfie on Instagram of him on a plane with the caption "Let's get Back to Business" implying he's off to Pittsburgh to skate with teammates in Phase 2:

However he's probably in the minority for now. A lot of players are still taking a wait-and-see approach, and now that rinks are opening up around North America, many players will have access to ice without having to travel. My friend, Swedish journalist Uffe Bodin, told me he believes most players in Sweden will likely stay there until they are required to return, since most of them have their own personal trainers both on and off the ice, so there's no rush to return to uncertainty in North America.

Has there been any development on Canada's 14-day quarantine issue?

Kaplan: Not yet. That's still an issue, and one of the reasons many players on Canadian teams who chose to self-isolate in the U.S. or Europe likely won't be back to their playing cities until they absolutely have to. Because if anyone crosses into the Canadian border, they have to quarantine for 14 days, which is obviously less than ideal. Might as well stay home for now.

Any updates on the collective bargaining front?

Wyshynski: Fehr said "we had been in talks for the better part of a year, and now we have these other issues to deal with." The new issues, of course, are directly related to the "adverse economic conditions" that the league has faced this season, and could likely face next season. The current CBA is in effect through the 2021-22 season.

One of the central challenges in trying to iron out a CBA extension is how to handle the amount of money the players might have to give up to the owners under their "50-50" revenue split under these conditions. Can it be rolled into a new CBA, over the span of several seasons?

The CBA talks are ongoing as the sides discuss return to play, and on a variety of topics. Like how to calculate hockey-related revenue, given all that's happened economically and with a new U.S. television contract looming. One such component of this is the salary cap, which would drop precipitously under its linkage to revenue, unless the players vote to artificially inflate it. There has been talk that a flat cap of $81.5 million over multiple seasons could be in play.

There has been optimism about CBA talks for a bit, and the collaboration between the sides during this return to play has fueled that. But the past few months have certainly changed the math in that next agreement.

"If we could come to an agreement, that would provide for an extension of the CBA and cover all these things, great. But we won't know that for a while," Fehr said.

And as always, what's your latest pop culture addiction this week?

Wyshynski: I caught up with a 2017 documentary called "Becoming Bond," which chronicles how Australian model George Lazenby became James Bond for one very successful film -- "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" -- and then walked away from the series. It was very clever, very funny, but I was left wanting a bit more clarity about that ultimate decision.

I've been binging Ta-Nehisi Coates' run on "Black Panther," and I'm all-in on it, and very much looking forward to consuming some of the offshoots like "World Of Wakanda" by Roxane Gay. But the best pop culture thing in my life in the last week: "Run The Jewels 4," of course. It's both sad and striking that these tracks were written months ago but could have been written yesterday, especially the devastatingly good "Walking in the Snow."