We’re now two weeks into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to introduce a new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Today, we’re tackling the thing most people want to know about–the playoffs.
Q: What is the optimal playoff format for when (if) play resumes?
Brian La Rose:
I know there is some growing optimism to expand the format to as many as 24 teams in an effort to try to artificially improve revenues by getting some larger market teams in. Sure, it’d create some extra short-term interest and create the opportunity for even more upsets than last year. But let’s face it, Chicago and Montreal have no business being in the playoff discussion and there are no guarantees fans will be allowed to attend anyway so the potential revenue boost may not wind up being as high as they’d like.
I’d rather see a 16-team format and an effort made to try to play out the balance of the regular season or as much of it as possible and have the bubble teams battle it out that way. Gary Bettman has talked about the importance of protecting the integrity of the Stanley Cup and the season as part of any discussion about what to do moving forward. That is achieved by doing this over opening the field up to as many as eight more teams and playing best-of-three series. It may not be the most optimal from a salary cap perspective for next year but that number can be negotiated over solely being fixed by HRR anyway.
Now, if they feel the need to change something, they can scrap the divisional format and go back to the older way where the top team played eighth place, second played seventh, and so on.
Generally, I often hear people complaining about the current playoff system as many wish it to return to the 1-16 format. However, I’m a big fan of the current seeding structure and would never want to change it.
However, this is a year in which we might want to make some changes to the playoffs, depending on whether the regular season is canceled or not. Obviously, if the league has time to finish out the regular season, then my vote would be to keep the playoffs the same. If the regular season is canceled, I would like to see the playoffs expanded as a one-time event. With some teams having played more games than other teams, it just doesn’t seem very fair to just take the top 16 (even if they base it on points percentage). A team like Columbus might slip out of the playoffs since they were already at 70 games. While they had won just three of their previous 10, I feel like with Seth Jones likely back on the ice for them the team could surprise someone again in the playoffs.
I would like to see some more teams get in, but the suggested 24-team playoff seems like way too many. In my estimation, 21 teams were close to challenging for a playoff spot (maybe 22 if you want to include Arizona). So, I think whether they are play-in games or something minimal, I would like to see all those teams get a chance to earn their way into the playoffs.
One format that could a) stress the importance of regular season success, especially maintaining the league’s emphasis on division battles, b) fairly include an expanded field if the regular season cannot be completed, and c) take place in a more limited amount of time would be to reward the top two teams in each division with first-round byes while implementing shorter series in the first round.
If the playoffs were to start with standings unchanged and seeding was to be based on points percentage, the first round would feature byes for Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Edmonton. Eight “wild card” teams in each conference would battle in three-game series. In the East, it would be Pittsburgh vs. Montreal, Carolina vs. the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders vs. Florida, and Columbus vs. Toronto. In the West, it would be Dallas vs. Chicago, Nashville vs. Arizona, Vancouver vs. Minnesota, and Calgary vs. Winnipeg.
The winners of each wild card, three-game match-up would be re-seeded for the second round, which would essentially mirror the traditional first round and set up the standard playoff structure. The conference semifinals, finals, and Stanley Cup Final would proceed as they normally do. In total, a field of 24 teams would be able to take part in the postseason with no more than three extra games compared to the usual course and no chance of a top-four team in either conference being knocked off due to time-constrained, shortened series.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure there is an optimal setup at this point. The idea that any more regular season games will actually be played this season seems more and more unlikely each passing day and without those, it is hard to maintain the integrity of the Stanley Cup playoffs, what has become known as one of the longest and most difficult grinds in all of professional sports.
Sure, including teams like Montreal and Chicago would be beneficial to hockey related revenues, but it would taint the whole process in my opinion. How would you draw the line? Do the Sabres and Devils both also make it, given they’re only three points behind Montreal with two games in hand?
If it were possible, I would actually be shrinking the field to try and maintain some integrity, instead of expanding it. Eliminating all four wild card teams and giving byes to each division leader would allow you to keep the tradition of seven-game series and reward the teams that were really the best performers of the first part of the regular season.
Now, of course, the NHL would never do something like that. Having teams sit idle is only letting money fly out the window, and they’ll want as much as possible if they want to keep next year’s projections anywhere near accurate (which they already won’t be). I imagine we’ll see some sort of a play-in tournament, but they won’t risk losing a division leader in a short series against a team that wasn’t even in the wild card spot when the season hit pause.