How NHL players would change the Stanley Cup playoffs

NHL

Expansion of the Stanley Cup playoffs is my hill to die on. My last breaths will be spent mouthing the words “play … in … round.”

I’ve explained my philosophy and procedures before in this column, but to reiterate: There are now 32 teams in the NHL. In the pre-Gary Bettman expansion era, 16 of 21 teams would advance to the postseason. We’ve gone from over 76% of the league making the playoffs to just 50% after the Seattle Kraken joined the family. The NBA, MLB and NFL have expanded their own postseason fields in recent years while the NHL remains stagnant, leaving money on the table.

The NHL makes no secret of how vital the Stanley Cup playoffs are to its product. It’s like March Madness: The casual fans might not hang around during the regular season, but they turn out for the postseason tournament. New fans are created while following the joy and pain of a playoff run. Meanwhile, the star players who the league struggles to market outside the hockey bubble get their most intense sports media spotlight.

Why not invite more teams to that party? Expand the tournament to 20 teams, 10 from each conference. Start with a play-in round with the No. 7 and 10 seeds, mimicking the NBA model. Those teams advance to the pristine 16-team tournament we all find sacred, and off we go.

At the recent NHL Player Media Tour, I asked over a dozen players: What is your ideal Stanley Cup playoffs format and would you consider expanding the field now that there are 32 franchises?

What I found: That these NHL players would probably agree to increasing escrow before they agree to an expanded postseason. But they are intrigued by a smaller-scale tweak to the current Stanley Cup playoffs format:

Keep the wild card. Scrap the bracket.

“That’s a good question. I like half the league being out of it. I’ve been on the outside of it a lot, and you’re begging to get in. But I like it the way it is,” Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said.

“But personally, I’m pretty old-school. I like the old format. One through 8.”

The NHL has had the wild-card format since the 2013-14 season, a by-product of its realignment, sending the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference, the Winnipeg Jets to the Western Conference and reformatting the league’s 30 teams into four divisions. The top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, while two wild-card teams from each conference also advance to the postseason.

One of the keys to this format was the creation of a bracket that the postseason would follow rather than having the matchups change after each round based on highest remaining seed vs. lowest and so on. That locked in a divisional No. 2 vs. No. 3 series in the first round every postseason. This matchup has produced some awesome hockey, like the San Jose Sharks‘ 2014 classic against the Los Angeles Kings and their 2019 stunner over the Vegas Golden Knights; 2016’s seven-gamer between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks; and two Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins series that Leafs fans would love to expunge from the record.

“I think the division rivalries are fun to watch and fun to play in. It always leads to good hockey,” Robert Thomas of the Blues said.

The No. 1 through No. 8 seed format, which the NHL implemented from 1993-94 until the wild card was adopted, created some great hockey, too. It also offered more variety, without having two divisional teams seeded against each other every season. That static seeding can be rather deleterious to a team’s Stanley Cup aspirations — for example, the Maple Leafs would have avoided the Bruins in both of those first-round defeats had there been a No. 1 through No. 8 format instead.

Of the players I spoke with, many were open-minded about returning to the format.

“I did think, growing up, it was pretty cool when they had the 1 through 8 seeding. Maybe less play in the divisions. Because sometimes the divisions are stacked,” Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils said. “I don’t know. I just hope we make the playoffs one of these years.”

Awww…

The NHL dealt with that same kind of inequity before adopting the 1 through 8 format, back when four teams qualified from each division. Some really great teams that finished fifth in their stacked divisions would have waltzed in had they played in a weaker one. In 1987-88, for example, the New York Rangers finished fifth in the Patrick Division but had a higher point total than five other playoff teams. It happens.

Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin played in both the divisional format and the 1 through 8 format, while building the current roster for the wild-card playoffs.

Put him down for a return to the 1 through 8 seeding, while retaining the current wild-card qualification.

“I’d like to go back to 1 through 8. I like the wild card for qualifying for the playoffs, but then I’d like to go back to a 1 through 8,” he said.

One look at the Wild last postseason and you can tell why. They finished second in the Central Division with 113 points. Under the current format, that meant a first-round meeting with the Blues (109 points), who eliminated them in six games. Under the 1 through 8 format, and assuming the division champions get the top two seeds, the Wild would have met the No. 6-seeded Kings (99 points), whom the Edmonton Oilers eliminated in the first round.

While that might have been an easier path, Guerin said the 1 through 8 format doesn’t guarantee anything for higher seeds.

“There’s so much parity in the league now. Even if you went back to 1 through 8, you’re bound to play a good team,” he said.

It’s here that we get to the universal mindset shared by all the players that opined about the playoff format: It doesn’t matter what the seeding is or how many teams participate. Just win the games.

“I know some teams are like, ‘We always play this team and it’s harder in the first round,'” San Jose’s Tomas Hertl said. “But if you get in the playoffs and you want to win the Stanley Cup, you have to beat everybody anyway.

“So for me, there’s no excuse about who we play in the playoffs. If it’s like, ‘We should have someone easier in the first round,’ for me, it doesn’t matter. It’s the playoffs.”

Cool, so we should have more teams in the playoffs then, right? If it doesn’t matter who you play?

“No,” Hertl said. “I like it how it is right now.”

In fact, none of the players with whom I spoke were in favor of expanding the NHL playoff field beyond 16 teams. Even the ones that might benefit from it.

“No, I think it’s pretty good now,” forward Jared McCann of the Kraken said. “It makes it competitive. It makes it more entertaining when it comes down to the wire for a couple of teams.”

Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba echoed that. “It’s hard to make the playoffs. I think sixteen’s good. I think the playoffs are hard enough and long enough as is,” he said.

Kings center Phillip Danault wouldn’t change it either. “I think it’s nice. Sixteen is good. If you make more, it’ll be a longer season. Unless you do best-of-three or best-of-five.”

For a brief moment, I thought I spied a little common ground. Maybe a shorter tournament would allow for more teams?

I ran that past Cam Atkinson of the Philadelphia Flyers — a team that could really, really use an expanded playoff field for the foreseeable future — and he took it in a different direction.

“I like the fact that it’s half the teams, because it’s that hard to get into the playoffs,” he said.

Atkinson then paused for a contemplative moment.

“But maybe the Final should be best-of-seven, and the other three rounds should be best-of-five. A little shorter. Fewer guys get banged up. People want to watch the best of the best? Have guys play healthier,” he said.

Intriguing. It’s counterintuitive to the war of attrition that makes the Stanley Cup playoffs unique, and in no way supportive of my thesis, but intriguing.

Maybe, eventually, there will be a debate about a shorter postseason with more than 50% of the league’s franchises involved in it. Some players seemed a little curious about that, but aren’t ready to have that debate now.

They do seem ready to change the current format, however, and the NHL would be wise to listen to them.

Let’s keep the wild card and get back to 1 through 8 in each conference. It’s an equitable system that adds value to the regular season and some welcomed unpredictability in the postseason.

But please, for the love of Lord Stanley: Rebracket after every round, including the final four teams in the conference finals. If rivalries are the lifeblood of the playoffs, then allow two of them to meet for the Cup, geography be damned.

Oh look, a new hill to die on…

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Jersey Foul of the week

Let it never be said that New York isn’t a baseball town.

As far as we know, the closest Rangers winger Alexis Lafrenière has gotten to baseball is appearing on an Upper Deck card. This sweater falls under the “Cross-Sport Infiltration Exception” Jersey Foul rule, which provided an exception for hockey names and numbers placed on other sports’ jerseys as a manner of stealth marketing


Video of the week

In case you missed it, “a multi award-winning provider of digital marketing services for the global, regulated online gambling industry” published a ranking of the most and least attractive NHL head coaches.

If you’re curious: Jay Woodcroft of the Edmonton Oilers was ranked first overall while Peter Laviolette of the Washington Capitals ranked last, but we’re not exactly sure about the methodology of a study that ranked Calgary Flames curmudgeon Darryl Sutter second overall.

The existence of this list was justified when Vancouver Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau was informed that he ranked 16th overall at a recent news conference — the perfect jumping off point for the most self-deprecating of coaches to build a comedy pyramid:


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