The NHL’s expanded post-season has been quite well received so far. After all, it is the first time the league has seen more than 16 teams included in the tournament, and at five rounds it is also the longest offering the NHL has given its fans in the league’s history. There is more suspense than usual and more teams have been given a second chance than in the past. It has brought along the usual superlatives: unpredictable, nerve wracking, among others. But one I would like to see used more: permanent.
In this article we will examine a few reasons why the NHL should consider keeping the 24 team playoff format being used right now. Also included will be some counterpoints to the argument, and what I think are reasonable responses to those arguments. Let’s take a look at why the so-far successful tournament should be a mainstay for the future.
Point 1: More Meaningful Hockey
By the time of the COVID-19 induced stoppage of the regular season, every team in the league played at least 68 games. If we are being realistic, at that point a 16 team post season’s participants are usually set. The Columbus Blue Jackets were holding on to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference with 81 points. Immediately following them were the Islanders (80), Rangers (79), and Panthers (78), and then there was the Canadiens with 71. The Western Conference was much the same, with a few viable contenders remaining for the final spot. The Predators held the 2nd Wild Card with 78 points, followed by Vancouver, Minnesota, Arizona and Chicago, all of which were within 6 points of the Predators spot.
Think of it like this: If you are a Canadiens fan, what reason did you have to watch the final 11 games of the regular season? Same goes for the Sabres and Devils. There would be a greater amount of stakes for the games toward the end of the regular season for those at the bottom, the teams that are not altogether terrible but rather dreadfully mediocre. For some, maybe you don’t want those teams in. But the performance of the Canadiens and Blackhawks in their series’ against the Penguins and Oilers, respectively, showed that there is a reason to give these teams a chance to compete. The NHL is a league blessed with the gift of parity, something few pro sports leagues can boast. The amount of teams that can pull off a surprising series win goes much further than the 8th seed, and teams, as well as fans, deserve a shot to see that kind of magic can happen. We saw that the 16 teams that make the playoffs normally aren’t the best necessarily. Expanding the post-season would promise that the best matchups are guaranteed.
Point 2: It Devalues The Regular Season
I can see this being a hot topic if the NHL ever considers this format full-time. I personally don’t think it would hurt the regular season. Quite frankly, if teams slow down towards the end of the season in a post “Blue Jackets sweep the Lightning” world, then it is their own fault. There will still be races at the top of the standings, with the Round Robin being a goal for teams not wanting to match up against a qualifier team that might have had their number in the regular season or that plays a style they struggled against throughout the year.
With that said, changing the playoff format could allow the NHL to adopt a 70 game regular season to go along with it. Theoretically this could even out any fears for those believing the league’s powerhouses will have less to play for. Another factor to consider as well is the advantages of a 70 game season for the players. At most, a qualifying team will play 75 games before the 16-team field begins play, while the Round Robin teams will play 73. It would probably be a little better for the players mentally playing a few less regular season games, with 70 games instead staggered over a few more days of the week.
Point 3: More Teams/Players Are Featured
Raise your hand if you are sick of seeing the Penguins, Capitals, Lightning, Bruins, Rangers and Red Wings dominate the screen on NBCSN and NBC. I hope at least 80% of you reading this have your hand up, because I most certainly do. How wonderful was it to see the Panthers logo, or the Jets, Canadiens, Flames, Oilers or Coyotes grace the top of your screens? Want to know why no hockey fan you know will tell you either of those teams are their favorite? Because they are never featured on national television in the United States. What the Qualifying Round allowed was more hockey fans to see these teams and players than ever before. There are phenomenal players viewers got to see that otherwise would not have been in the playoffs. Taylor Hall, Elias Pettersson (and any of the 1500 other talented youngsters on the Canucks), Dominik Kubalik, Alexander Barkov, just a few names of what I am sure are many that I am missing, all nearly missed the playoffs. Now, Kubalik is a household name because of the chance he got to follow up on his phenomenal rookie season in the Qualifying Round. You ever hear someone say “Sasha Barkov is the most underrated player in the league”? You probably wouldn’t be hearing that anymore if Barkov was on national TV more, something an expanded playoff can fix.
Point 4: Possible Revenue Increase for the NHL
What does the NHL love? Revenue. What is the NHL going to need in the years following the coronavirus? Revenue. And what better way to make up for costs than at least 24 extra playoff games? Now of course, maybe that’s a bit of a rosy picture. Can teams raise prices to the point that it outweighs the benefits of selling tickets to a couple more home games? I’m not a CFO, and being a Sabres fan I am not too educated on the costs of playoff tickets, but I’d be willing to bet your typical professional hockey team owner would love to sell a few more possibly overpriced seats.
The word “playoffs” is enough of a draw on its own. Playoffs are big. You need to get there to win the ultimate prize. No major sports team in the US or Canada is named champion unless they outlast the best of the best in a tournament. And in today’s thriving sports social media landscape, people want their teams in more than ever. If you make the games a big deal, the people will come. There’s markets that are guarantees, like every Canadian team, Buffalo, Minnesota, New York and any of the other major hockey cities in the US. And imagine a franchise like the Coyotes or the Panthers, perpetually struggling to get fans in the arena or even getting people to care, constantly going into playoff drought after playoff drought. Do you think their brain trusts would object to being able to promote a few playoff games, with the potential for more?
It goes beyond ticket sales. How about merchandise? People love to get t-shirts reveling in any bit of their team’s success. The Winnipeg Jets, for example, understand this. They promoted the heck out of “White Out” gear prior to the start of their series with the Flames, despite no fans being able to attend the games. As Bills fans, how many of us immediately bought “2019 Playoffs” t-shirts last year? Of course, we’re talking Winnipeg hockey fans and Buffalo sports as our examples, but any source of additional revenue at $30.00 a pop sure looks attractive to any business man in an NHL office, as well as exclusive merchandise dealer Fanatics.
How about television? Again, I’m no wizard when it comes to finances, but being a communications major I have heard my fair share about how television ratings influence advertising costs. If its the playoffs, more people will watch. Its the pull of that word and the implications of what comes with 3 wins in the qualifying round. If Pegula Sports and Entertainment could bill their broadcasts as “Buffalo Sabres Playoff Hockey on MSG presented by…” it opens up a host of opportunities for sponsors for the big games, because let’s be honest, the casual Sabres fan is more likely to tune in to a Sabres playoff game than a regular season match vs the Blue Jackets on a Wednesday night.
NBC would be thrilled, too. They’ll get an additional slate of games to spread out on primetime over a week or 2. What does that mean? Sweet, sweet advertising money. I’m sure NBCSN would love to have a few more playoff hockey games on in primetime over a fishing show or something of that nature.
More playoff games means something, to the fans and to teams. And in the hockey business, the money it can attract might be all the owners need to hear.
Point 5: 24 Teams Is Way Too Many And Devalues The Tournament
Again, this is a valid point, but allow me to point you towards a crazy thing called “The NHL in the 1980s”. From the 1979-80 season until 1990-91, 16 of the league’s 21 teams made the playoffs every single season. These playoffs featured some truly hideous participants, such as the 1987-88 Toronto Maple Leafs making the playoffs with 52 points, and a few years before that in 1986 going to the tournament with 57 points. But no matter what happened in that decade, the best team always rose to the top. Two dynasties were born in that decade, the Islanders and Oilers. How about the runners up throughout the decade? The Flyers in 1980 had 116 points and 113 in 1985. The Islanders and Oilers also lost to each other a few times and like I said, both of them ended up being possibly the greatest teams of all time. True, some teams made it to the Stanley Cup with 92 or 87 points, but that was very good in the days before the “loser point”. And of course there were the outliers, the 1982 runner-up Canucks had 77 points.
For the sake of comparison, lets adjust the point totals of recent overachievers to the 1980s. The 8-seed 2017 Predators had 94 points in their Western Conference Championship winning season. 12 of those points were from OT losses. Lets say, for the sake of comparison, they were playing that series in 1986 and half of those were ties and the others were losses. The Western Conference representative of the Stanley Cup that year would have had 88 points if that point system was still in place. That looks really bad, doesn’t it? Plus, if you are reading this article you’re most likely a really big hockey fan, or you’re a friend who I pestered to read it. But none the less, if you are the former, you know today’s NHL teams are a heck of a lot more talented than those of the 1980s. Even if a team staggered into a 24-team playoff with 71 points, say (though highly unlikely in an 82 game season), they are still guaranteed to give their Qualifying Round opponent a great fight. It is just how the game is nowadays.
Point 6: How Can It Effect Tanking?
This is a point I am grappling with, but something we should think about as a whole. I’m not writing this to tell you how the NHL should determine the lottery odds for the 7 (soon to be 8) teams that don’t make the playoffs (or 15/16 under the 16 team format). Should the Qualifying Round teams still be included? Surely you can’t give the bottom 7/8 teams increased odds, right? That makes me think the former point is more plausible, allowing the Qualifying Round losers to participate in the lottery still. That way, teams can be more honest about being bad. Its a complex issue and in my opinion the biggest obstacle to the format being implemented full-time.
Point 7: Its Just Fun
Sadly, this is the least influential reason to the big shots, but the biggest to me personally. If you don’t think its fun I suppose you prefer to spend your nights after work or even your weekends doing something like polishing shoes or another boring venture like that. I can’t tell you how many texts I have sent or how many hours I have spent texting friends about the current postseason. The games have been great and the players are motivated. It has been physical and fast, and it has been a high-stakes offering of more hockey than we have ever seen at once. It has been a success so far, and if the NHL commits to this setup for the long term it is in more than just the fans best interests.
If you liked this article and want to send feedback, tell me you agree or I suck, tweet me @LvkeTCB. I am also constantly tweeting whenever the games are on so feel free to follow along.