(Photo by Noah Graham/NHL)
There's a lesson for the NHL to learn from baseball's wacky wild card races: hold elimination games for the final playoff spots in each conference.
If the NHL playoffs were similar in spirit to Major League Baseball's, there’s a good chance the Los Angeles Kings wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup in 2012. They would’ve had to play the Calgary Flames in a one-game showdown just to get into the playoffs and probably would’ve lost.
More on that later, but first to the matter at hand.
MLB – a master at selling one of the slowest-moving, least action-packed team sports – has bottled and packaged hope for fans of average teams and is selling it back to them. And all the while it's encouraging elitism, which is what every highest-level pro sport league should do.
Of the five major North American leagues, MLB has by far the best post-season format, with just a third of teams (10/30) making the playoffs. Of course, that ratio is actually smaller (8/30) when factoring out the losers of the elimination games. That means only the best clubs get in the playoffs, while middling and mediocre ones are left out.
The NHL, meanwhile, has always maintained a soft spot for averageness (so much so that it awards a pity point for losers). The league allows more than half (16/30) of its teams to make the playoffs, though at least that’s better than its nearly 80-percent acceptance rate (16/21) pre-1990s expansion.
MLB puts a premium on the regular season, forcing teams to win their division (what a novel idea) to make the playoffs, while the NHL panders to averageness and makes a mockery of the regular season. The NHL will never shrink its post-season format – ideally, it’d be the same as MLB’s – but there’s a way for it to continue hyping averageness, as it's wont to do, while still encouraging elitism.
The NHL can have its cake and eat it too by expanding the post-season.
Huh, you may say? How does letting even more average teams in eliminate averageness? By doing this: allow two more teams from each conference into the post-season and hold four elimination games for the final playoff seeds.
It’d work like this:
The top-three seeds from each division secure playoff spots. The next four teams in each conference, however, would have to go through play-in games to advance to the dance, similar to what MLB does:
10th place @ 7th place
9th place @ 8th place
Nothing but good could come of this. It’d force teams to take the regular season much more seriously instead of being content just to make the playoffs. And it’d also keep more teams in the playoff race longer, which would put more butts in seats, which would mean more coins in coffers, which would be good business for the NHL.
Now back to the Kings.
In 2011-12, Los Angeles was all kinds of average in the regular season. L.A. finished five points ahead of Calgary for the final playoff spot in the West and then became the NHL's best team for two months to win the Stanley Cup.
Under an MLB-inspired post-season format, the Kings would have hosted the Flames in an elimination game. The two teams played four games against each other that season, and L.A. went 2-1-1. Advantage Kings, right?
The two games they lost were both at home.