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NHL agrees on 24-team playoff for coronavirus return

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Approving a format for the NHL’s contemplated return to the ice this summer should have been relatively easy and the least of the league’s and NHLPA’s problems.

It wasn’t easy at all, but it is done.

More difficult, complex issues lay ahead, and there may be details still to be hammered out, such as bracketing versus reseeding, but the players association’s executive board comprised of 31 team player reps did authorize the union to move forward and negotiate outstanding issues with the understanding that the league would reopen with an expanded 24-team tournament if the parties are able to surmount massive obstacles to stage a summer comeback following the March 12 pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It remains to be seen whether outstanding matters involving health and safety protocols; quasi-quarantine for perhaps up to 10 weeks within a hub city and separation from family; rules of engagement on the ice, and financial considerations including the players’ escrow obligations will be as difficult to navigate as this one that proved difficult. And these would seem to be the most pertinent issues.

“The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup,” read a statement issued by the union on Friday night. “Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”

NHL
Jordan Eberle scores a goal against the Rangers.Paul J. Bereswill

The NHLPA held a conference call Thursday night ahead of a vote to accept or reject the NHL’s proposed return-to-play format featuring a 24-team tournament in which the clubs with the top four records in each conference would receive byes into the first round while the teams seeded fifth through 12th would meet in a best-of-five play-in series. The teams with the NHL’s seven worst records would not reconvene.

The Post has been told by several parties familiar with the call that a significant faction of players believe the format does not sufficiently reward clubs for their success before the NHL season was put on pause. These players — or proxies — spoke their piece.

The Penguins, for instance, were in third place in the Metro Division, three points behind the Flyers and four points behind the Capitals, all three with 13 games remaining. Pittsburgh was six points clear of a playoff spot. That has become all but irrelevant. Under this format, the Penguins would play a best-of-five against the Canadiens, 12th in the East and 23rd overall, for the right to advance to the first round. The Habs were 10 points out of a playoff berth when the season stopped and at a games-played disadvantage.

Still, the motion passed overwhelmingly.

Under this scenario, the 11th-seed Rangers would meet sixth-seed Carolina while the seventh-seed Islanders would face 10th-seeded Florida in the play-in round.

There is no timetable attached to a contemplated 2019-20 restart, though the consensus is that training camps likely wouldn’t open until late June or early July.

In addition to the outstanding issues that must be brokered between the league and the union, there are immigration, visa matters and travel restrictions that must be resolved by government agencies before the NHL can plot its return to the ice.

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