On Tuesday, the NHL confirmed the 24-team Return to Play format which means that while the regular season is now over, Montreal’s 2019-20 campaign will last a little longer.
The Habs will play Pittsburgh in what is being called the Qualifying Round. It’s not the regular season and the league doesn’t seem to want to call it an expanded playoff field so instead, it gets this unique designation. But let’s face it, it is effectively an expanded playoff field.
The start date for this best-of-five round is yet to be determined. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the third and final phase of their plan which involves a training camp isn’t going to take place until sometime in July. The target is a three-week camp so at this point, it looks like we’re still the better part of two months away from the Canadiens taking to the ice again.
Meanwhile, the league confirmed that the Draft Lottery will take place on June 26th, the original start date of the draft which was supposed to be held in Montreal this year before it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike the proposal from earlier this month, it won’t be a watered-down lottery with only one pick being drawn and the bottom five teams being eligible. There will be three draws as usual and no limitation to how many spots a team can move up.
However, the first phase of the lottery will only officially feature the teams whose season has come to an end. Slots 8-15 will be designed as ‘placeholders’ and will be designated as the teams who lose the Qualifying Round games.
If all three spots go to a team in the bottom seven, then that will be it for the draft lottery. The 8-15 selections would be assigned to the losers of that round in inverse order of points percentage. From a Montreal perspective, if this happened and they lost to Pittsburgh, they’d pick eighth overall. That’s the simple scenario.
If, however, a placeholder team wins one or more of the lottery spots, then a second lottery will be held after the Qualifying Round concludes. Odds would be equal (12.5% per team) so regular season standings would not apply. In this scenario, the Habs, in theory, could move up as high as first or as low as 11th depending on how many placeholder teams win in the first lottery. While it’s a convoluted process, it ensures that a team in the Qualifying Round doesn’t have the opportunity to know if they’re going to get a top pick if they lose their series.
Obviously, if Montreal was to win against Pittsburgh, they could pick no earlier than 16th.
While the lottery (or lotteries, depending on what happens in the first one) will be held before the playoffs end, the actual draft will come at the end of the postseason. That means that those who make their respective Conference Finals will hold the last four picks each round as usual.
Also as part of their announcement, the league indicated that the top four seeds will be slotted based on a three-game round robin against each other, a format that isn’t particularly fair to Boston, in particular. It has yet to be determined if they will use a fixed bracket format for the postseason or if they will re-seed after each round. The league also hasn’t decided if the first and second rounds of the official playoffs will be best-of-five or best-of-seven series.
One other area that remains up in the air is the ability to sign players for the current season. Notably, this affects Alexander Romanov. The league’s current position is that they will not permit those contracts to begin this season but that they will discuss this with the NHLPA. If there’s a change of heart though, they’d be able to use him against Pittsburgh if they so desire.
While there are still plenty of questions to be answered over the coming weeks, the Habs now know for sure that there are at least three more games to play and that they won’t know where they will be drafting for a while yet. Even so, there is a long way to go in terms of logistical as well as health and safety measures before this plan can be fully executed.
Full details from the NHL’s Media Site can be found here.