Sidney Crosby and the Penguins would have to get through Toni Lydman and the Buffalo Sabres in a play-in match in order to make the playoffs under Brian Costello's 10-team system. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
The time has never been better to expand the NHL playoff structure from 16 to 20 teams.
It’s way overdue. Come on, way back in the days of the Original 21, it was a 16-team playoff format. So the pool of non-playoff teams has risen from five to 14 without so much as a revision? Doesn’t make sense.
The time is right for a few reasons.
(a) More parity in the NHL than ever before. In the Eastern Conference this season, there’s a clear gap between the 10th-place team and the 11th-place team. That’s a natural dividing line. In the Western Conference, 11 teams are in contention for just the final four spots. It’s a shame that seven of them will miss the post-season dance.
(b) For marketing purposes. Three of the six bubble teams in the East are cornerstone franchises: Montreal because of the game’s most passionate fans; the New York Rangers because of the magnitude of the city where the league has its headquarters; and Pittsburgh because of Sidney Crosby, the game’s most powerful/influential personality. There’s a good chance one of those cities won’t be in the playoffs under the archaic eight-team format. A berth in the playoffs for the other three bubble teams (Florida, Buffalo and Carolina) would be crucial to the growth of those small-market teams in tough economic times.
(c) Adding a short preliminary round would be a public relations hit. The key word being ‘short.’ Here’s how I see a 20-team playoff working.
The NHL regular season ends on a Sunday (April 12). On Tuesday, the 10th-place team in each conference travels to the home of the ninth-place team for a one-game winner-take-all tilt. The winner then travels to the home of the eighth-place team for a Wednesday game that decides the eighth seed in the conference. The playoff format then unfolds as per usual with three conference series’ beginning on the Thursday and the fourth, involving the play-in games survivor, on the Friday after a day off.
So for example, if Pittsburgh finished 10th, the Pens would have to win play-in games in Carolina, then Buffalo in order to advance to the first round against Boston. Think those solitary games on Tuesday and Wednesday would generate good ratings and coverage? You bet.
And in the West, two play-in games would give Cinderella teams such as Columbus or St. Louis or Los Angeles or Phoenix a chance to really make some headlines in those cities and across the continent.
Critics of proposals to add more playoff teams claim the hockey season is already long enough, stretching well into June. But this format adds just a couple more days and would generate continued hockey interest in four additional markets. Let’s lop a week off the pre-season schedule to compensate. And let’s not forget each playoff game adds about $1 million to the home team’s coffers.
The NCAA men’s basketball championship added the play-in game in 2001 for the 64th and 65th rated teams and it generated additional interest. Fact is, the winner has to face the top seed in the region and is surely fodder, anyway, but it gave March Madness an element of opening the door for the long shot.
The NHL should take it a step further and have two play-in games in each conference. It has the added benefit of giving 14 playoff teams an extra couple of days to mend and prep for the opening round. And the compressed format certainly makes it an uphill battle for the play-in teams to do any long-term damage in the playoffs, but that’s what they get for finishing ninth and 10th.
What does the NHL possibly have to lose?
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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