The NHL got one step closer to returning to the ice Friday night as the executive board of the players association approved an expanded, 24-team version of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, potentially ending the Sabres' season.
In a statement, the NHLPA said negotiations will continue on an overall return to play plan. That would include timetables for training camp and games, protocols for safety and coronavirus testing for players and staff, and a decision on game sites as the league is expected to use two or four "hub" cities to stage all games.
"Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play," the PA said.
If the league and PA move forward with this plan, the playoffs would shift to a conference format with the top 12 teams in each conference qualifying. The Sabres would be one of seven teams not participating and would be the first team shy of the cutoff in the East, nosed out of the final spot by Montreal on the basis of points percentage (.500 to .493). It would be their ninth consecutive year out of the playoffs, one shy of tying the NHL record of 10 consecutive seasons.
The regular season would be declared over with the Sabres three points behind the Canadiens and holding two games in hand. In addition, Buffalo did not get the chance to play either of its scheduled games in the Bell Centre against the Canadiens this season. The Sabres were in Montreal to play a game on March 12 when the coronavirus pandemic put the season on pause.
There were no announcements from the NHL on Friday. The plan was first reported by Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, with TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeting a majority of the 31 team player representatives approved the plan. The Sabres' rep on the board is defenseman Jake McCabe.
The Sabres would join New Jersey, Ottawa, Detroit, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim as teams that would not qualify. It would mark the first time since 1996 that all three California teams missed the playoffs in the same season.
The league will be staging the games in arenas with no fans but has not yet determined what hubs it will use to limit travel. Columbus, Toronto, Edmonton and Las Vegas are the most rumored possibilities, although the continued closure of the Canadian border is problematic. In addition, reportedly more than 15% of the league's players would have to return to North America after going home to overseas locales.
Games would likely be preceded by a three-week training camp, and the assumption is that it would likely take into September before the Stanley Cup could be awarded.
The top four teams in each conference would initially get byes in the tournament, which will use best-of-five series for the first round for seeds 5-12 in each conference. The top four are believed to be headed for a round-robin tournament among themselves, where it's expected that seeds 1-4 could be up for grabs and not completely be set by the regular-season standings.
The top four teams in the East on points percentage would be Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia. The top four in the West would be defending Cup champion St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas.
The top four in each conference and the four first-round survivors would then advance to a standard 16-team playoff with all series expected to be best-of-seven affairs.
The first-round matchups in the East would be No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Montreal, No. 6 Carolina vs. No. 11 New York Rangers; No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Toronto vs. No. 9 Columbus. In the West, it would be No. 5 Edmonton vs. No. 12 Chicago, No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Arizona; No. 7 Vancouver vs. No. 10 Minnesota and No. 8 Calgary vs. No. 9 Winnipeg.