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NHL's return plan crowns St. Louis as Central champs but leaves city out as hub host

NHL's return plan crowns St. Louis as Central champs but leaves city out as hub host

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Coronavirus Blues

Enterprise Center, home of the St. Louis Blues, on March 20. 2020. (Post-Dispatch photo by David Carson)

In unveiling what is now the NHL’s official plan for resuming play this season, commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday that 10 cities are under consideration to be among two hub cities for the league’s 24-team postseason.

St. Louis is not among the 10. The 10 potential hub cities are Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver.

“We have shown interest and have provided the league with different scenarios and insights around our buildings and how and why we think we’d be a fantastic hub city in the event that that happens,” Blues president and CEO of business operations Chris Zimmerman told the Post-Dispatch two weeks ago.

The NHL obviously felt otherwise. Zimmerman did not comment immediately Tuesday.

Bettman said the host cities will provide a secure environment health-wise in terms of arenas, practice facilities, hotels and transportation. A final decision on the two hub cities is expected in three to four weeks.

Each team will be allowed a personnel maximum of 50, and a very limited number of support staff will have access to the arena event level for games. Players will be tested daily for the coronavirus once they arrive at the hub city.

While outlining the return to play format, Bettman confirmed most of the particulars of the 24-team plan approved by the NHL Players Association last Friday but added additional details.

“Obviously these are extraordinary and unprecedented times,” Bettman said. “Any plan for the resumption of play by definition cannot be perfect. And I am certain that depending on which team you root for, you can find some element of this package that you might prefer to be done differently.

“But we believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that as a practical matter might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused. This plan will produce a worth Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL.”

As such, he declared the NHL regular season officially over for the 2019-20 campaign. The Blues thus finish the regular season as Central Division champions and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, although that seeding could change depending on how St. Louis fares in the round-robin competition against the other top three seeds in the West: Colorado, Vegas and Dallas.

Bettman also provided the beginning of a timeline for return to play.

Phase 2, or the start of small-group workouts, will start in early June.

Phase 3, or the start of training camp, will start no earlier than the first half of July

As for Phase 4, the start of the postseason, that remains to be determined pending in part on developments in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“The final determination will depend on COVID-19 conditions, testing availability and government regulation,” Bettman said.

But he did say that under optimum conditions, the playoffs could begin in late July or early August.

There are still tons of details to be decided, but if the NHL returns to play, the format is now set.

The 24-team postseason format will consist of 12 teams per conference. The top 12 teams from the Eastern Conference, ranked by regular-season points percentage, will be assigned to what Bettman called Hub City 1. The top 12 teams from the West, again ranked by regular-season points percentage, will be assigned to Hub City 2.

Seeds Nos. 5-12 in each conference will take part in what the league is calling the qualifying round, with the winners advancing and the losers going home. These will be best-of-five series. With Bettman’s remarks Tuesday the lineup for the qualifying round is now official:

Eastern Conference

No. 5 seed Pittsburgh vs. 12. Montreal

6. Carolina vs. 11. New York Rangers

7. New York Islanders vs. 10. Florida

8. Toronto vs. 9. Columbus

Western Conference

5. Edmonton vs. 12. Chicago

6. Nashville vs. 11 Arizona

7. Vancouver vs. 10. Minnesota

8. Calgary vs. 9. Winnipeg

While the qualifying round takes place, the top four seeds in each conference will take part in round-robin play _ where each team plays one game against each of the other three teams _ to determine playoff seeding. Under this scenario, the Blues could end up as low as the No. 4 seed in the West.

But entering round-robin play the top four seeds are as follows in each conference:

Eastern Conference

1. Boston; 2. Tampa Bay; 3. Washington; 4. Philadelphia

Western Conference

1. Blues; 2. Colorado; 3. Vegas; 4. Dallas

Bettman said it has been decided that the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven series. The series length of the first and second rounds is to be determined. Also yet to be determined is whether the playoffs will be bracketed or reseeded after each round.

The qualifying round as well as the first two rounds of the playoffs are expected to take one month to complete.

“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans are telling us in overwhelming numbers that they want us to complete the season if at all possible,” Bettman said. “And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion.

“Although we are anxious to get back on the ice, we will not do anything until we are assured by medical professionals and the relevant government authorities that it is safe and prudent to do so.”

DRAFT LOTTERY

For the bottom seven teams in the overall standings, their season is over. Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey and Buffalo are done. Next stop the NHL draft lottery, Phase 1 of the lottery is June 26. (San Jose’s pick was previously traded to Ottawa, so the Sharks won’t take part in the lottery.)

As Bettman put it, the draft lottery “is a bit complicated, and I apologize for that.”

If the drawings in Phase 1 for the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 overall picks all go to teams that did not make the 24-team postseason format, there will be no Phase 2. But if that’s not the case, a Phase 2 draft lottery will take place after the completion of the qualifying round for the eight teams that lost their qualifying-round series.

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