When will the NHL playoffs start? Guide to NHL 2020s return

I remember well watching hockey on Wednesday March 13th, 2020. The NBA had already suspended a game due to COVID, and I thought, ‘this is probably going to be the last hockey I watch for a long time.’

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Well hockey seems like it is on the way back. I didn’t think it would get here at the beginning, but it looks like we will see a Stanley Cup champion in October. (That sounds weird as I type it!).

There is still a long way to go but it looks like there is a chance that the NHL will return in the summer to complete the 2020 season. Information is always changing and new details are emerging so I will update this post regularly to keep you informed. 


So when will the NHL return and when will the playoffs start? Well, dates are subject to change, but the outline for the season is there. The NHL is targeting to have training camps start on July 13th. Teams will travel to the bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto by July 26th. Games will start on August 1st and the Stanley Cup will be awarded in early October.


Report to training camps


There is no way that an NHL player can come out of the lockdown and simply start the playoffs without any preparation. To do so would be a sure case of countless injuries. 

The players need time to get their bodies into gear to be able to play at the high-level they are used too. Therefore, before any playoffs start a training camp will be required. 

As of now the NHL is targeting training camps to start on July 13th. Although, most players are already back to their team’s city and practicing with their teammates in preparation for training camp.

Even with training camps players are going to have a hard time finding their rhythm and timing the first few games back. However, they need to find it quickly our they could be going home after just three games – let’s look at the agreed upon format between the league and players. 


Play-in and seeding rounds


The league and players spent many, many weeks and zoom calls debating the best format possible to comeback. 

The first thing they decided is that the NHL regular season was finished. 

The second thing they decided is that the resumption of the season would not need all 31 teams, but only the top 24. Sorry, Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Buffalo, LA, Anaheim, and New Jersey you had not chance at winning the Stanley Cup anyway.

The NHL then took the 24 teams and divided them into two groups: the top 8 and the next 16. Let’s look at the top 8. 

Top 8

Western Conference

  • St. Louis Blues
  • Colorado Avalanche
  • Vegas Golden Knights
  • Dallas Stars

Eastern Conference

  • Boston Bruins
  • Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Washington Capitals
  • Philadelphia Flyers

Those teams had the top 4 records in their respective conferences at the end of play in March. Each of these teams has been guaranteed a spot in the 16 team playoff round.

Before the playoffs begin the top 4 teams in each conference will play 3 games – one against each other. This will determine the seeding of teach team going forward in the 16 team playoff round. 

These games will begin on August 1st, but the schedule has not been released at this point.

Ties during the round-robin will be broken by regular-season points percentage. The seeding order will then remain the same for the top four teams throughout the playoffs.

The top team in the conference will play the lowest seed of the play-in series

16 team play-in series

The 16 teams remaining teams were then slotted based on their records in their respective conference to be put into a 5 game play-in series. The winners of the play-in series will join the top four seeded teams for a traditional 4 round Stanley Cup playoffs.

These play in series will begin play starting on August 1.

Here are the play-in series:

Western Conference

  • (5) Edmonton vs (12) Chicago
  • (6) Nashville vs (11) Arizona
  • (7) Vancouver vs (10) Minnesota
  • (8) Calgary vs (9) Winnipeg

Eastern Conference

  • (5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (12) Montreal Canadiens
  • (6) Carolina Hurricanes vs (11) New York Rangers
  • (7) New York Islanders vs (10) Florida Panthers
  • (8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs (9) Columbus Blue Jackets

Again, the winner of these play-in series will advance to the first round of the playoffs and play one of the top 4 seeds waiting for them. 

The NHL, at first, had the idea of having a hard bracket like the NCAA basketball tournament, but decided that each round will be reseeded so the highest seed will play the lowest. 

This will make it extra difficult for a Chicago or Montreal, who never would have made the playoffs, to actually make much noise in the playoffs. It would leave a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of fans if a team that probably was not going to be in the playoffs got to hoist Lord Stanley. 

These games are not considered playoff games, but play-in games. As well, they are also not considered regular season games. What are they considered? The NHL has not told us yet!


Playoff Bracket


Every round of the 4 playoff rounds will be a 7-game series. There was some talk to condense the playoff schedule up by making the first or possibly second round a best of 5-series. This would save the NHL about 10-14 days of time, which is important in case a second wave of COVID lockdowns happen.

However, I think, common sense prevailed and the players pushed for an integrity to the playoffs and all 7-game series matching previous Stanley Cup playoffs. 

After the play-in series and the seeding games for the top regular season teams, each conference will be left with 8 teams. They will be then be seeded in order from 1 to 8, where the highest seed will play the lowest seed.

After each round of the playoffs the highest seed left in the conference will get to play the lowest seeded team. For example, if the 8th seed beats the 1st seed in the first round then in the second round the 8th seed will need to play the highest seeded team left. 

That is a tall task for any team to win the Stanley Cup this way, although the LA Kings did win the Stanley Cup as an 8th seed when the playoff structure was by conferences and not divisions, which it is now. 


How long will all of this take place?

Once the playoffs start (in early August) all four playoff rounds will take about two months to complete.  This would take the playoffs until the end of September or most likely the beginning of October. 

As you will remember a regular season playoffs will start in mid-April and go to mid-July, which is also a two-month span.

There is really no way to speed up the series, unless they start playing a lot of back-to-back games.  That will not be done because it would be too much wear and tear on the players. Well, I should never say never as this year has proven!


How will this affect the start of the regular season?

The regular season for 2020-21 will not start in October, as a normal schedule would dictate. Instead, look for it to start around December or January. 

Of course, a lot of variables are unknown about that start date.  Mostly what is unknown is the state of the world with the pandemic and if we are in lockdown mode again.

The NHL does not have a huge television deal like the NBA, NFL, and MLB and rely heavily on people buying tickets to the games. The NHL cannot go a whole season playing in front of empty stadiums with no fans. The economics of the game dictate that they need to sell tickets – see here for a breakdown of the NHL revenue and their sources

No one is sure how things will work out, but the start of the next season could face a long-delay before it gets off and going. 

Right now the NHL is saying that they are committed to an 82 game schedule, but with everything they are making things up as they go. Would I be surprised to see the schedule shortened next year? Not at all. 


How about the NHL Entry Draft and free agency? 


The NHL entry draft and free agency will take place at the resumption of the regular season in October. 

There was some talk about having the NHL entry draft before the playoffs as a way to gain exposure and keep people interested in the NHL. I am so thankful that this did not happen. I agree with Steve Yzerman, GM of the Detroit Red Wings, that I have not heard one good reason why this should happen. The NHL entry draft can only happen at the end of the season – this is where all the trades happen and teams get built. How do you do that when the season has not officially come to an end?

The NHL entry draft will take place in mid-October.

Free agency normally takes place on July 1st, but will now take place on Nov 1st. All NHL contracts got extended from their end date of July 1st to the end of the playoffs so the season could return.

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