On May 26th, league commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the press regarding the league’s official return to play plans. He outlined the, at worst, chaotic 24 team plan to restart the league. If this were a normal season, talking about an expansion of the playoffs would be quickly shot down. With the virus bringing a halt to the league, however, it could create a perfect opening for such negotiations. The NHL’s 24 team playoff format could open the door for future expansion.
The New Format
Usually, the NHL playoffs are seeded having the top team in the conference playing the lowest wild card, the division winner of the opposite division playing the first wild card, and the two and three seeds from each division facing off against each other.
Instead this format brackets the postseason, having the top four teams in each conference playing a round robin to decide what branch of the 16-team playoffs, and the five through 12 seeds play best-of-five play-in series against each other to decide who goes on. The eight teams who lose in the qualifying round go into the draft lottery.
Whatever way you shake this decision it is a historic moment in the league’s history. As the league expanded from six teams to the 31 we have today, playoff expansion was necessary to feed fans hunger and profit more on the league. In this case, expanding to 24 teams in order to fulfill as many games in the league’s TV contracts does the same thing. Normally when talking about the league’s playoff format, expanding it is never on the table. But, in a post COVID world, playoff expansion might be something the league pursues.
Option One: A True Wildcard Series
The idea here is pretty straight forward. Similar to the MLB playoff format, you have a wildcard game to decide which team, or in this case teams, go on to play the top seeds in each division for this to workout. The league would need to expand the field by two teams per conference, in order to have 10 teams with the ability to make the 16 team playoffs.
Let’s use this season’s Eastern Conference standings as an example. Had the season ended in March, the four teams in the wildcard series would be the Carolina Hurricanes, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the New York Islanders, and the New York Rangers. Under this format, the “top seed” of the wild card teams, in this case the Hurricanes, would play the “bottom seed”, the Rangers, in a one game series to decide which of the two go on to the playoffs.
The same would happen with the second and third ranked teams in the wildcard. The winners of those two games would go on to the playoffs. The team with the lower regular season record would go on to play in the top-seed in the conference, and the other would play in the opposite division.
The format is a little wacky and certainly won’t pass the talking stages, but it will most definitely add some excitement to the playoffs and be an awesome way to end the regular season before an already action packed postseason.
Option 2: NBA Style Seeding
This isn’t an expansion of the playoffs, rather an amendment to the current format. Nothing much would change in the play of the game, but this format seeks to eliminate the wildcard race as well as the divisional playoffs that currently exist in the league’s format.
The match-ups for the first round would be decided based on conference seeding. The top seed in the conference would play the eighth, the second and the seventh, the third and the sixth, and so on down the list. This format favors the higher seeds and might make for a top heavy Stanley Cup Final, but if there were to be an upset it would be an interesting and exciting story that would play out and maybe even bring in a few extra eyes to the league’s postseason play.
Option 3: Run With It
This season’s playoffs are shaping up to be the most exciting in recent memory. Injured players from earlier in the season could make their return, crazy story lines are coming into fruition, and the sports world’s greatest trophy will make another appearance. With sports fans everywhere dying for live sports, and the uncertainty surrounding other leagues in North America, hockey could gain a huge number of casual viewers with this format in place.
If all goes well and the league sees a huge ratings boost stemming from this year’s postseason format, why go back? Once fans are allowed into stadiums, attendance during the playoffs should increase. TV viewership will continue to grow causing an increase to league revenue. Almost everybody wins in this scenario. Sure the league would run a little longer than it normally would, but if money is coming, does it matter?
This season’s playoffs are a test run for future expansion. If all goes well and it proves to be a success, the window for the league to change their current playoff format will be open.