The current NHL playoff format isn’t perfect, but it is compelling and produces some of the most outstanding moments in professional sports. It’s one thing the league has gotten right, and there’s no need to change it.
Ryan O’Reilly|Patrick Smith/Getty Images
The day after what would have been Bill Veeck’s 106th birthday – look him up on Google, kids – news came out that Major League Baseball recently had a meeting with its Players’ Association to discuss adding teams to the playoffs and a scheme in which higher-seeded playoff teams would choose their first-round opponents in a reality-style television event.
Cool. You go, baseball. Fourteen of 30 teams making the playoffs would simply elevate baseball to the level of the other three North American professional sports when it comes to post-season participation. And hey, it would give more teams the opportunity to play for a chance to shower each other with beer after achieving an accomplishment akin to winning a first-round playoff series. So there’s that.
It’s just that when things like this happen, people get, you know, ideas. Really dumb ones like messing with the playoff format in the NHL, which happens to be the best in all of professional sports. There was a time when an absurd 16 of 21 teams made the post-season in the NHL. That was between 1979 when the league absorbed four teams from the World Hockey Association and continued until the San Jose Sharks joined the league in 1991. In those 12 years, no team that had ever finished lower than seventh overall went on to win the Stanley Cup. Then the league started expanding and expanding some more. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the board of governors elected to hold the line on the number of playoff teams. So when Seattle joins the league to become the 32nd team, exactly half the teams will make the playoffs and half won’t.
The NHL has hit on a system that isn’t perfect, but it is outstanding. The first two rounds of the NHL playoffs are every bit as compelling and chaotic as March Madness. And once teams get through that, they come to the realization that they’re only halfway to realizing the dream of winning a Stanley Cup. You know how they say the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in professional sports? They’re right.
Bettman and the owners have so far resisted the temptation to mess with the playoff format. The concept of play-in games to decide the final playoff seeds in each conference has been proposed and, thankfully, shot down. If you’re not good enough to be among the top three teams in your division or the next two best teams in the conference after 82 regular-season games, you don’t get invited to the party. This is the NHL, the best league in the world. Sorry, no participation trophies here.
We get that the system isn’t perfect. For example, the Carolina Hurricanes are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, largely because the Metropolitan Division is so good and competitive. If the Hurricanes were in the Pacific Division, they’d be in first place. They’d be in third if they were in the Atlantic or Central. Giving a bye to each division winner, then seeding the next seven teams regardless of division would solve that. But there was a time not long ago when the situation was reversed where the Pacific was the Group of Death and the Metro was decidedly weaker. These things tend to even out over the years and the fact that it happens should not come at the expense of regional rivalries.
And that’s what people who want the NHL to change its playoff format might be forgetting here. The NHL is a regional sport, far more than any of the other four on the North American landscape. Hockey fans are more likely to tune out after their teams get eliminated than in basketball, football or baseball. One of the complaints about the current format is that two excellent teams with similar records stand a good chance of facing each other in the first or second round of the playoffs, thereby eliminating a quality team by the time the playoffs are one quarter/one half done.
You need to point no further than the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry to see that. But here’s the thing. Fans have to live with either the Capitals or the Penguins being eliminated in the second round, something that could conceivably happen this season, despite the fact the Capitals and Penguins are currently the third- and fourth-best teams in the league. Same thing could happen with the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, who hold down the fifth and sixth positions. But the huge upside is that by having the playoff format this way, fans are almost always guaranteed a matchup against a division rival in the first two rounds. Yes, one of them goes home early, but at least you get to see the matchup.
And as for teams picking their first-round playoff opponent, just no. When it comes to that, let MLB be the Southern Pro League or the Seaforth Silver Stick or the Lethbridge Ice Breaker. There was a time when the Ontario League would allow first-place teams to either take a bye or play a first-round series, conceivably in order to get more home dates and revenues, and there was a year the Ottawa 67s chose to play in the first round and lost. It was a stupid idea then and it remains one.
There are a lot of things that need to be changed about the NHL, but the playoff system is not one of them. This is one thing that Bettman and Co., have gotten right. And if sanity prevails, they won’t change a thing.
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