Sources: NHL mulling conference-based playoffs

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

The NHL and the NHLPA are discussing a 24-team, conference-based playoff format for a potential restart to the 2019-20 season this summer, sources confirmed to ESPN.

The proposed format was first reported by Sportsnet.

The NHL season has been on pause since March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The playoffs would be conference-based and would remain bracketed, replacing the divisional wild-card format the league has used since 2013. The top four seeds, determined by their standings points percentage when the regular season was paused, would receive byes through a round of best-of-five play-in series that would feature seeds 5 through 12.

Those play-in series would determine which teams advance to a traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket, which would have seven-game series.

The NHL will likely utilize only two “hub” cities for its restart if the proposed 24-team, conference-based playoff format is approved by the league and the NHLPA, an NHL source told ESPN. The NHL had explored using four “hub” arena sites during a season restart. Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday that eight or nine locations are under consideration.

Fans will not be allowed at the games and logistics remain a work in progress.

The NHLPA executive committee will meet Thursday to discuss the format and other “return to play” issues. When asked about the proposed format and the two “hub” city plan, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN in an email, “I’m not aware of any agreement yet. Don’t want to jump the gun on anything.”

The proposed format also would have the top four seeds participating in a three-game tournament during the play-in round, alleviating concerns from top teams that they could be rusty and face sharp teams coming off first-round games. It hasn’t been determined if the mini-tournament between the top four teams will have an impact on the seeding.

After the opening round, the fourth seed in each conference would face the winner of the matchup between the 5 and 12 seeds, with the No. 3 seed meeting the winner of the 6-11 matchup. The second seed would play the winner of the play-in series between the 7 and 10 seeds, with the conference’s top seed awaiting the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 meeting.

Under the proposed format, the seeding and play-in series would be as follows:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Top seeds: Boston Bruins (1), Tampa Bay Lightning (2), Washington Capitals (3), Philadelphia Flyers (4)

Play-in series: Pittsburgh Penguins (5) vs. Montreal Canadiens (12); Carolina Hurricanes (6) vs. New York Rangers (11); New York Islanders (7) vs. Florida Panthers (10); and Toronto Maple Leafs (8) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (9).

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Top seeds: St. Louis Blues (1), Colorado Avalanche (2), Vegas Golden Knights (3) and Dallas Stars (4).

Play-in series: Edmonton Oilers (5) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (12); Nashville Predators (6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (11); Vancouver Canucks (7) vs. Minnesota Wild (10); and Calgary Flames (8) vs. Winnipeg Jets (9).

Expanding the Stanley Cup playoffs from 16 to 24 teams has been favored by the NHL as an equitable remedy for teams that were near the playoff bubble when the regular season was paused. For example, just four points separated the 11th-seeded Coyotes from the final wild-card spot with 12 games remaining in the season.

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