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The NHL has a plan to return to play, the Sabres are not part of it

The Sabres are the first team out of the mix of a 24 team tournament to crown a Stanley Cup champion.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, the Capital One Arena, home of the Washington Capitals NHL hockey club, sits empty in Washington. The Ottawa Senators announced late Tuesday night, March 17, 2020, one of their players has tested positive for COVID-19, has mild symptoms and is in isolation. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When the league has approval from medical and government authorities, the NHL will begin a 24 team tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion. 

The league plan includes the top twelve teams in each conference based on point percentage at the stoppage of play. The NHL paused the 2019-20 season on March 12 due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

The Buffalo Sabres are ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference and did not qualify for the tournament. 

Instead, the Sabres are one of seven teams who will automatically qualify for the Draft Lottery to determine the top three picks in the next NHL Entry Draft. 

Phase one of the draft lottery will take place on June 26th. Some teams that qualified for the playoff tournament will be part of the draft lottery. If one of those teams wins a top-three pick, there will be a second phase of the lottery later in the summer. 

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the 24 team playoff tournament will take place at two venues. Each hub will play host to the top 12 teams in each conference with one based in an Eastern Conference city, and another in the West.

The league has narrowed its focus of hub cities to 10, and will make a final decision based on approval from local health officials.

The league expects players can begin returning to their home rinks early next month.

Training camps won’t open until July 1 at the earliest.

Bettman said the league is open to playing into early fall.

Bettman says games during the play-in format to determine the top 16 teams will be played under regular-season rules. The conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will feature seven-game series.

Bettman says the league has yet to determine whether the first two playoff rounds will be five- or seven-game series.

Bettman said fans would not be allowed in the arenas and each site will have a secure venue, practice site, hotel and transportation for players and others connected to the teams. Bettman said COVID-19 testing would be available.

Much of this is still subject to approval from the players union, and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr says there's still much ground to cover. 

"On the health and safety front, look, there's no question about it, unless there can be adequate testing, along with all of the other measures we put into effect just to open up training camps, which we hope to be able to do sometime to do sometime next next month. I'm sorry, open up phase two which we hope to do next. Those are real concerns." 

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