By Jack Ryan

The NHL yesterday became the first major North American pro sports league to unveil its formal return-to-play plan.

Commish Gary Bettman outlined the 24-team format, details on the Draft Lottery, and the official conclusion of the 2019-20 regular season.

“We hope this is a step back towards normalcy,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

For the first time, Bettman revealed a best-case timeline. He said training camps will begin “not earlier than the first half of July.”

Players have asked for a three-week training camp. If that request remains intact after they begin training in small groups next month, then the earliest the puck can drop is in late July or early August.

“We view this more as a continuum than absolute dates, because anyone that is giving you dates is guessing,” Bettman said. “It’s conceivable that we’re playing at the end of July. Maybe things open up quicker. If it has to slide more, then it will slide.”

What is the 24-team format?

The top 12 teams in each conference will compete in either a seeding round-robin or a qualifying (“play-in”) round to determine the 16 teams that will ultimately compete for the Stanley Cup.

The top four teams in each conference will play for first-round seeding using regular season overtime rules.

The remaining eight teams in each conference will play a best-of-five series to advance to the first round of the playoffs, using overtime rules.

The format of the first and second rounds of the playoffs is still to be determined. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association are negotiating on whether it will be best-of-five or best-of-seven series, plus whether it will be a bracket format or seeding.

The Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final will both be the usual best-of-seven series.

How will the top four seeds be determined?

The top four teams will play a three-game round robin that will determine their seeding and first-round matchup.

It will be possible, Bettman conceded, that the current No. 4 seed Flyers end up as the No. 1 seed in the East to begin the playoffs – even though they finished 11 points behind the Boston Bruins, the best team in the East – and the entire league – in the regular season.

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Only in the event of a round-robin tiebreaker will regular season points percentage impact the seeding. This format came as a result of top-four teams not wanting to be at a disadvantage with a bye.

“They needed some games that mattered, to not be coming in against a team that just played a competitive series,” Bettman said. “The benefit and the curse of a bye, I suppose.”

Where will these games be played?

Each conference will be assigned a “hub” city that is designed to operate as a bubble for players and team personnel, with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation.

The two hub cities will be selected from 10 candidates: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St.Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto or Vancouver.

Bettman also said that it remains possible for the Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final to be played in the cities of the teams that are competing.

What might a playoff schedule look like?

Expect a March Madness-style of schedule, at least in the first few weeks of the NHL’s return to play, with games at all hours of the afternoon and late into the night.

“I think the fact that with no travel associated at all that we can safely schedule some back-to-back [games],” Daly said. “We’re not going to overload these playoffs with back-to-backs, but I think it’s certainly reasonable in the first several rounds of the playoffs, maybe even in the conference finals.”

Daly said one of the objectives from the NHLPA was to “make it as quick as possible” for the players who may be isolated from their families. If the players are willing to play the first two rounds in a best-of-five format instead of the traditional best-of-seven, Daly said it would shave more than a week off the schedule.

Daly said: “We felt from an overall health perspective, the sooner we can go in and get out, the better.”