The N.H.L. on Thursday announced that players would be able to return to practice rinks for limited, voluntary workouts starting Monday and solidified its playoff format.
Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under the guidelines, which include instructions on testing, wearing masks and temperature checks. It’s another step closer toward the league’s plan of returning to the ice in two hub cities with 24 of its 30 teams. The league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.
The N.H.L. and players’ union must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.
The league’s announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed that one of their players had tested positive for coronavirus. The team said the player was not in Pittsburgh, had isolated after experiencing symptoms and had recovered from Covid-19, the disease the virus causes.
Nine players have tested positive for the virus — five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume.
“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”
The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred reseeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.
The top four teams in each conference will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Reseeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.
Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, a member of the Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.
“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” said Kris Letang, Pittsburgh’s player representative. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”
Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.
“I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion,” Tavares said, “and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them.”