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Phases on Stun: Bettman calls NHL season over, unveils complex playoff and lottery plans

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“We have a phase to announce.”

Boston Bruins v New York Islanders
...then in Phase 23, only overtime goals count.
Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Got your thinking cap on? Good. Don’t have one? Well, then you’re on your own when it comes to understanding the framework for the NHL’s Return to Play scenario that commissioner Gary Bettman laid out on NBCSN this afternoon.

That’s hyperbole, of course, but not really. In fairness to the NHL, any plans to restart the season while the COVID-19 pandemic is still active were always going to be difficult. There are so many factors to consider regarding the safety of everyone who could potentially be involved before even getting to how best to award the Stanley Cup and handle the draft lottery that any idea was bound to feel incomplete or uneasy.

That said, Bettman took to the air today to lay out in a grainy video call just what the league and the NHLPA have agreed on at this point. None of this guarantees games will return, but a basic framework has been established.

“At the pause, we committed to resuming play only when appropriate and prudent. 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.”

You can watch the whole segment here. Be ready to have your brain melted.

That’s A LOT to digest, and I think I understand maybe 78-85 percent of it, akin to what my grades looked like in high school.

A couple of notes on dates: “Phase 2” of the Return to Play plan includes teams returning home to practice facilities for small group workouts and training. That is expected to begin in “Early June.”

“Phase 3,” which would not begin earlier than the beginning of July, will have formal training camps. This will require medical and local government authorization. Phase 4 is the playoff scenario detailed below.

Season Done, Qualifying Rounds and Playoffs

The first thing to note is easy: the 2019-20 season is complete after 69 games. Team records as of March 12, the date the NHL paused its schedule, are final. The Islanders finished 35-23-10 for 80 points, good for a .588 win percentage and seventh place in the Eastern Conference (we’ll parse out that whole 17-game win streak followed by four months of sucking at another time).

Under the NHL’s Return to Play plan, the top 12 teams in each conference have qualified for this year’s post-season tournament. The top four seeds will play one round-robin game against each other to determine seeding. The other eight will play in qualifying series based on their final standings positions. Winners will play one of the top four in what is technically the first round of the playoffs (got that?).

So the Islanders would play the Florida Panthers, who finished 10th in the East with 78 points, in a best-of-five qualifying round series. In case you were wondering how that match-up will look, MSG Network has you covered and the NHL goes a little more in-depth.

Round-robin games will be played using regular season rules, while the qualifying round games will use playoff overtime rules.

The games will be played at two hub cities - one for the West and one of the East - that have yet to be decided. Candidates include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver, but Bettman stressed that no official selections have been made and won’t for several weeks.

The length of the first two playoff rounds beyond the qualifying ones is also yet to be determined, but Bettman says the league feels the qualifying and first two rounds can be done in a month. Conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final will each be best-of-seven series.

The Lottery. Whoo boy.

Okay, so the playoff stuff is pretty straightforward, even given everything that’s still TBD. The lottery is a different kettle of ping-pong balls entirely.

The seven non-playoff teams are automatically entered and their seasons are ended. The eight teams that lose in the qualifying rounds will also be added to the lottery.

On June 26th, a lottery will be held with three draws, each to determine one of the top three selections in the draft. If one of the seven non-playoff teams wins each of those draws, the rest will be determined by regular season winning percentage.

If one of the eight place holder slots - each representing a qualifying round team - wins a top three pick, then the lottery enters Phase 2, in which one of the top three choices will be determined. This is a safety mechanism to try and make sure that the non-playoff teams get a shot at the top picks and that “playoff” teams (emphasis on the ““ there), don’t.

No, I don’t fully understand it either but the breakdown at the Islanders site is actually very helpful. Maybe by June 26th it’ll make sense. Remember: The Islanders’ first round pick this year belongs to the Ottawa Senators for the J.G. Pageau trade, but is Top 3 protected should it end up that high, which I don’t think it can unless some really crazy shit happens.

Bettman made the rounds with several media outlets right after his NBCSN segment so expect much, much more written about this to come out over the next several hours. If there are some updates, we’ll slap them in here.

And remember: a lot still has to happen before this thing actually takes off. But we can at least look back at the season that was and look ahead to some events that might still take place.

What about next season? There’s a phase for that, too: