NHL Reveals Expanded Playoff Format

I don't write a lot about hockey in this space. This is because I don't watch or care about hockey much. I tell people I like all sports except cricket and auto racing, but hockey narrowly misses that Mendoza line.

I cared quite a bit more when I was a kid, when I adopted the New Jersey Devils during their 1988 Cinderella run behind rookie goalie sensation Sean Burke, but after that ... meh.

But I have to comment on the NHL putting forth a bold proposal for an expanded edition of the playoffs in an attempt to figure out how to salvage the season.

There are things I like about it and things that I don't.

Things I Like

* More teams getting into the playoffs, 24 instead of 16. This seems like the fairest thing to do as no one who was remotely on the cusp of a playoff berth gets left out.

The top four teams will get byes into the quarterfinals, while #5-#12 seeds for each conference will battle for the other conference slots. Anyone who is a fan of March Madness understands how this works.

They can rejoice especially in Chicago and especially Montreal, where they would have to climb over a lot of teams to make the playoffs, but not now — they're in!

This seems to be the thing that leagues like to do when their season is shortened for one reason or another. After a players' strike shortened the 1982 regular season to 9 games apiece, the NFL held a 16-team playoff tournament, with each conference getting 8 teams seeded 1-8. Sixteen teams in the playoffs! We don't even have 16 teams in the NFL playoffs in today's days of expanded playoff decadence! In case you were wondering, the Cinderella team that year was the New York Jets, who as a 6-seed in the AFC took down the 3-seed Bengals and 1-seed Raiders before falling to the 2-seed Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game.

* Teams will play in two centralized hubs. One will be for the Eastern Conference and one will be for the Western Conference. This just makes good sense for the safety of all involved. It's a no-brainer. Those cities have been shortlisted, but not confirmed yet.

Things I Don't Like

* The top four teams in each conference don't exactly get a bye; instead they will play a round robin format between the four of them to determine seeding.

I like excess in sports and thinks that's a bit much. This basically means that the 70 or so games each of these teams have played pre-Covid won't count as much as the three games they play against top teams in their conference. That doesn't seem fair. Give them straight byes and seed them according to points per game coming into the pandemic. So they get an extra week of rest and practice after this long layoff. What's the difference?

* The word from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is that the first round for seeds #5-#12 to see who advances to the conference quarterfinals? They don't count as the playoffs. Why? I think a clue to the answer lies in this Twitter exchange.

People pound the sportsbooks betting on their favorite team to make the playoffs. Now that eight extra teams are getting in, particularly popular ones like the Blackhawks that wouldn't likely have made the playoffs otherwise, the sportsbooks are taking a bath. Bettman is potentially bailing the sportsbooks out, whether he means to or not.

Plus, how many players have playoff incentives in their contracts that would get hosed by such a decision? The players from the teams seeded #5-#8 in each conference would especially have a legitimate gripe. I guess it's not surprise that the commissioner is going to look after the ultra-wealthy owners first and foremost, but it still stinks to high heaven.

No date has been set for these playoffs yet, but if that's all that's going on in North America at the time, then the NHL will find a renewed fan in me.

At least until anything else starts.

Comments and Conversation

May 30, 2020

Anthony Brancato:

The NHL has been toying with the idea of a 20-team playoff for years. If they can “get away with” a 24-team playoff this year, then surely they can “get away with” a 20-team playoff in subsequent years. Plus the NBA will be able to “get away with it” too, as the NBA and NHL’s playoff formats have closely tracked one another for decades.

And not for nothing, but in the “Original Six” era, the top four teams in the NHL made the playoffs. That’s two-thirds of the teams - and 20 out of 31 would be less than two-thirds. So a “purist” argument for expanding the playoffs to 20 teams in the NHL (and the NBA, too) can actually be made!

The round-robin concept, however, is not original. The NBA used it in its 1953-54 season - and of the three teams in each of the league’s then two divisions who qualified for it, one of them did not advance to the division finals.

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