The National Hockey League, forced to close its doors March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, inched closer to finalizing a return-to-play plan with its players in recent days, raising hopes that game action could resume around July 1 with the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The plan, being forged between the league and the NHL Players’ Association and subject to modification, currently is aimed at getting players back on the ice for small-group practice sessions as early as late next week or by June 1.
Union player reps from the 31 teams voted on the proposed playoff format late Thursday evening. The league and players’ association likely will make the results public on Friday.
The Bruins, who would hope to set up shop at their Brighton training facility — if permissible under the city’s restrictions — would start back with multiple daily skating sessions, each workout group likely limited to six players and accompanying on-ice coaching staff.
In all NHL cities, it could take as many as four such sessions a day for all players to practice, ultimately leading to the start of a full training camp in mid June.
“Obviously, the good thing is both the players and ownership want to try and get some resumption of play going, if possible, this year,” said Bruins president Cam Neely. “This is a step toward that.”
In keeping with a number of reports, the league currently is planning to scrap the remaining 189 games on the regular-season schedule and enter directly into the postseason with a playoff pool expanded from 16 to 24 teams, 12 from each conference.
The seven teams to miss the cut, based on points percentage, would be Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Detroit, Ottawa, New Jersey, and Buffalo.
The Bruins, who owned the league’s best record (44-14-12) when play was suspended 71 days ago, would be one of eight teams (four per conference) with a bye when the postseason begins with eight teams in each conference engaging in a play-in round.
As of Thursday, the league and the union had not revealed whether the play-in round would be a round-robin tournament or a more traditional series of, say, best-of-five or best-of-seven games.
It’s also possible, according to one industry source, that the teams with byes will play in a non-elimination series at the same time. Such a format would allow the clubs to sharpen their game skills so they woudn’t enter elimination play with their legs cold while the other teams, in theory, enter with legs revved and ready.
In the East, the Bruins would be joined in the bye group by Tampa, Washington, and Philadelphia. The eight teams to battle it out in the play-in round: Pittsburgh, Carolina, Toronto, Columbus, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Florida, and Montreal.
In the West, the four byes would be St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas. The eight play-ins: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Nashville, Vancouver, Minnesota, Arizona, and Chicago.
Once into what amounts to the Round of 16, it is expected all series will be best-of-seven, with the Cup Final ending in early September, possibly on Labor Day (Sept. 7). Last year, the Bruins and Blues played Game 7 of the Final at the Garden June 12.
A key factor to all this: COVID-19 testing. It ultimately will dictate whether the timeline remains on course, or whether it must be amended or even scuttled.
“One hundred percent,” said Neely. “And again, the league will never put themselves in front of any others that need [testing], as far as front-line workers and whatnot. But testing is going to be key. Just like all the other sports; they’re going to want to know who’s positive or not.”
As of now, the league plans that all practices and games will be held without spectators.
The league more than a month ago began vetting potential centralized playing sites, and ultimately could settle on only two NHL cities, one in the US and one in Canada, acting as the host arenas for the entire postseason slate.
The Bruins, according to Neely, evinced their interest in TD Garden being one of the so-called staging pods. As of this week, said Neely, the league had neither approved nor rejected the offer. But given that Massachusetts remains a relative COVID hot spot, Boston is unlikely to be chosen.
Columbus or St. Paul would be more likely staging cities in the US, while either Edmonton or Calgary, or perhaps even Toronto, would be strong candidates in Canada.
On Tuesday, Canada and the US agreed to keep their borders closed for nonessential crossings until June 21, which could serve as an impediment to players seeking to get to their home cities for workouts and training camps. However, given that governmental leaders in both countries have expressed great interest in pro sports restarting, it’s a good bet the ban would be relaxed for NHL players.