PITTSBURGH -- Talks surrounding a return to play are heating up in the NHL.
Sportsnet is reporting "nothing is set in stone," but the NHL and the NHL Players' Association are discussing a plan that would jump directly into a 24-team, conference-based playoff format.
In this expanded playoff scenario, the top four teams in each conference would earn first-round byes. The next eight teams in each conference, based on points percentage, would play in a best-of-five series. Following this play-in round, the playoffs would then resume in a standard 16-team, seven-game format.
Teams would likely be sequestered in two "hub" cities based on conference. No fans would be allowed in the venue.
What would this mean for the Penguins?
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers would earn the four byes. The Penguins, the No. 5 seed in this scenario, would play a five-game series to start the postseason against the No. 12 seeded Montreal Canadiens. Should the Penguins win, they would advance in the bracket to play the No. 4 seed Flyers in a best-of-seven.
The Penguins (40-23-6) played the Canadiens three times this season. They lost 4-1 at PPG Paints Arena on Dec. 10, beat Montreal in overtime 3-2 on Jan 4 and won 4-1 on Feb. 14.
While no format will be perfect, this idea satisfies some of the issues created when the league paused the season on March 12. For one, at the time the NHL was paused, a lot of teams on the bubble of playoff contention were separated by just a few points and had played an uneven number of games. For example, in a Metropolitan division filled with parity, the Carolina Hurricanes (81 points), Columbus Blue Jackets (81), New York Islanders (80) and New York Rangers (79) were all within a win of each other. Many of those teams had made moves at the trade deadline to position themselves for a late push but didn't get the opportunity to see the full return on their investment.
From a financial standpoint, expanding the playoffs adds more high-stakes games to attract TV eyeballs and revenue. It also adds big markets and marquee teams like the Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.
Any type of return-to-play format would need to be approved by teams and players. Sportsnet noted this could come within the next few days.