The NHL Players' Association's executive board is voting on a 24-team playoff proposal as the return to play format, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Thursday night because the vote was still ongoing. Results of the vote could be in as soon as Friday night.
Even if the executive board votes to approve the format, it doesn't yet seal the deal for the NHL season resuming. The league and players union still need to negotiate other details, including health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The format is a substantial piece of the puzzle for returning to the ice, though.
Under the plan proposed by the joint NHL/NHLPA Return To Play Committee, the top four teams in each conference, Eastern and Western, would play each other for seeding while the remaining 16 teams face off in a best-of-five series play-in round to set the final 16 to compete for the Stanley Cup.
That would mean byes for the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers in the East, and the St. Louis Blues — last year's Stanley Cup champions — Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars in the West. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina, Hurricanes, New York Islanders and New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens would also make it in the East, and the Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks in the West.
"I feel like if you're doing the 24-team thing, it basically gives a team a chance that had no chance of making it, which if you play 82 (regular-season games), there's maybe 6, 8% chance that the team in 12th place (in the conference) makes it," Carolina player representative Jordan Martinook said Wednesday, more than 24 hours before the executive board meeting. "Nobody's ever seen this before, but at the end of the day, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are 16 teams, seven games a series."
The format being voted on would lead to the traditional four rounds of seven-game series.
"I don't think there's going to be a perfect scenario where everyone's super excited about," Predators center Ryan Johansen said earlier Thursday. "As long as everybody can agree and be happy with the decision that will be made, that's really all that matters."
If the NHLPA's executive board and the league's board of governors approve the plan, the who of returning would be set. The where, when and how must still be determined, including how many cities will host games, and specifics on quarantine regulations and testing.
"Nothing's really certain until it's certain, so things can change so quickly and they have on different things," Return to Play committee member James van Riemsdyk of the Flyers said Wednesday. "We're trying to keep as many options open and navigate through different things and hopefully come up with a vision that obviously, first and foremost, is the health and safety of everyone."
Commissioner Gary Bettman this week said the league was looking at eight or nine locations to serve as hub cities for the resumption of the NHL's 2019-20 season.
It's unclear when the league and players will agree to begin the second phase of preparations for return, which would be the reopening of team practice facilities and voluntary workouts. The following step would then likely be a three-week training camp before games resume.
"Obviously it's an important thing to navigate through all the different issues that there are so that ultimately we can try to find a safe way to get things going here," van Riemsdyk said. "There's been some different talks and things like that and talking about a bunch of different things and trying to sort through some different issues."
On Tuesday, Canada and the United States announced border restrictions will stay in effect through June 21. This marks the second time the restrictions have been extended since first being put into place March 18 because of the pandemic.
"I am hopeful that today's announcement will not have a material impact on our return to play discussions and timeline," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email at the time.
Seven of the league's 31 teams are based in Canada. There's also a question of how travel restrictions will affect players, many of whom have returned to their offseason homes.
The NHL paused its season on March 12, with Bettman adamant the league intends to award the Stanley Cup, even it means extending the playoffs into September. The season was postponed with 189 games remaining and teams having played an uneven number of games.
There is no set deadline as to when play must resume before the NHL considers canceling the season. Games could feasibly be played into October, with the 2020-21 season potentially opening in December or January.
One concern is how a potential nine-month layoff would affect players on nonplayoff teams.