Given the circumstances, there was no way the NHL was going to make everyone happy. Is a 24-team Stanley Cup tournament in the dead of summer the ideal solution here? Probably not. But when it comes to what millions of other people are enduring as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, carping over a professional league’s playoff system would undoubtedly fall under the scope of First World problems.
That’s not to say that hockey fans should simply unconditionally accept what the NHL is giving them and be grateful for having it without complaint. If anything, this crisis has likely taught professional sports leagues that they are nothing without the fans who consume their products. Sit down, shut up and take what we give you is not the attitude any league should have right now.
And the NHL, whose handling of this crisis has been exemplary, clearly has not done that. What it has done is make the best of what is potentially a very desperate situation, doing the delicate dance of responding to the needs of a league that is facing a $1.1 billion shortfall in revenues while trying to maintain the integrity of what it means to win the Stanley Cup. And it has done a very good job of that.
It’s also a desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures move, one that by its very nature should be temporary. And, thankfully, that’s exactly what it is. If the NHL manages to overcome all the logistical obstacles in its way and you liked having expanded playoffs this year, enjoy it because if the NHL’s word is any indication, it will not be coming back. And for that we say a hearty Hallelujah.
When asked on Tim & Sid whether this playoff format is a one-off, Bettman was adamant. “I’ve been on record (saying) I like what we have,” Bettman said. “I think our regular season is incredible. Our competitive balance is extraordinary. Our playoffs are the best in sports. What we have is terrific. This is dealing with a unique situation. This, in my view is a one-time thing.”
And when asked by TheHockeyNews.com for clarification on that the next day, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was even more certain. “We are 100 percent committed to our existing playoff format going forward.”
The main reason it was changed this year was that there were still a number of teams in the hunt for playoff spots when the league paused March 12 and with three weeks to go and a disparity in the number of games played, the league felt it wouldn’t be fair to simply cut things off at 16 teams. A lot of people, present company included, would have preferred to see 20, not 24. But the main takeaway is that, despite some outside pressure to expand the playoff field, the league is committed to keeping its tournament at 16 teams, even when Seattle joins the fold and playoff teams represent only half the league.
And that’s as it should be. Making the playoffs should be a worthy accomplishment. Every game on every night against every opponent should be meaningful. If you’re going to play for the Stanley Cup, you have to earn the right to do so. And part of earning that right is taking each and every one of the 82 regular-season games as a must-win situation.
Since the season was wiped out by the lockout in 2004-05, only once has a team qualified for the playoffs with fewer than 90 points. Only seven times have teams made the playoffs in a season in which they’ve lost more games (including overtime and shootout losses) than they’ve won and only 11 times have teams made the post-season after posting negative goals differentials.
There has been a fair bit of pressure on the league in recent years to expand the playoff field, with the most popular notion being what the NHL is doing this season with a 20-team playoff that would see the four lowest playoff teams in each conference have play-in series to determine which two teams join the top six. Thankfully, the NHL has not given in and seems to have no intention of acquiescing on this one.
Not only does a hard 16-team playoff race make for a better regular season and more compelling playoff races that routinely go to the last couple of days of the campaign, but it also makes for a better playoff. The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in professional sports for a reason. Good on the NHL for ensuring it remains that way.
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