NHL Needs to Follow NBA’s Lead, As Always

The folks who run North America's sports leagues have proven, time and again, that they will not hesitate to shamelessly exploit events that occur beyond their own provincial realms.

Even 9/11 was not off-limits in this regard, as that national tragedy gave the NFL the excuse it needed to hold the Super Bowl in February for the first time ever — and indeed, every Super Bowl but one (the following year's game, since it probably would not have been logistically possible, even as of the autumn of 2001, to push that game back) played since has been played in that month, moving the NFL owners one step closer to their holy grail of holding the Super Bowl on the Presidents' Day weekend, thus making "Super Bowl Monday" a de-facto national holiday (sorry, Daytona 500).

Then came the COVID pandemic, which led to the NBA expanding its playoff field from 16 teams to 20 — and to that league implementing its visionary, if opportunistic, "play-in" procedure involving the seventh through 10th seeds in each conference.

And since the NHL and the NBA have been pretty much tidally locked to one another when it comes to how many teams make their playoffs (isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?) — dating all the way back to the NBA's founding right after World War II — it is clearly the NHL's move.

In the hallowed "Original Six" era — and one can safely assume that "purists" exist in hockey just as surely as they exist in baseball — four of the six teams, or two-thirds of them, made the playoffs, yet no one ever kvetched about how this rendered the regular season "meaningless" — and interestingly, prior to the 1972-73 season, the first- and third-place teams from a division played each other in the first round of the playoffs, and the second- and fourth-place teams played each other (the NBA did the same thing until realigning into four divisions in 1970-71).

The percentage of playoff teams in the NHL has drifted up and down since those days, dropping to one half after the New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks joined the league in 1972 (the 1972-73 season), but then reverting to its "traditional" two thirds just two years later — the 1974-75 season — and in the 1977-78 season the Rangers became the first team in the history of any of the four major sports ever to finish last in their division and make the playoffs (the Atlanta Flames would do the same thing the following year), the justifiable backlash that created led to the NHL decreeing that henceforth the top four teams in each of the four divisions that the league then had would qualify; and after absorbing four teams from the World Hockey Association (the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets), the NHL had 21 teams, 16 (or 76.2%) of whom entered the postseason.

Since then, the NHL has added 11 more teams (the Seattle Kraken this season), but no more playoff berths — resulting once again in only half of the league's teams getting in (and until last year, essentially the same trend applied to the NBA).

It is rare indeed that expanding the playoffs can be justified in the name of "traditionalism" — but this is indeed one of those rare occasions.

Assuming that the NHL doesn't realign as it ideally should, the expanded playoff field can consist of the top four teams in both divisions in each conference, plus two wild card teams in each conference, making the field, with the two fourth-place teams in each conference getting the 7 and 8 seeds, and the two wild card teams the 9 and 10 seeds, with the play-in phase proceeding as in the NBA, and the higher seed getting the home ice advantage in all three games.

And while they are doing that, the NHL should lengthen its regular-season schedule to the same 84-game slate that it actually played in 1992-93 and 1993-94 — which would mean that all division rivals get to play each other four times (at present teams play two of their seven division rivals only three times).

A play-in tournament in the NHL?

It will be fun, we say.

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