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NHL playoff expansion proposal is a winner for fans and owners

The NHL playoff expansion proposal to add four more wild card teams is a winner.

The Panthers and the Flyers hit the ice on Tuesday night desperately needing wins to narrow the gap that separates them from wild-card berths.

But what if Florida and Philadelphia, as the ninth and 10th ranked teams, respectively, in the Eastern Conference, were already holding golden tickets, leaving the Devils, the Senators and the Blue Jackets (the 11th, 12th and 13th ranked teams, respectively) in scramble mode?

Such a scenario that could soon be playing out if the NHL pursues a plan to expand the playoff qualification picture.

“Heard an interesting idea from an NHL executive about expanding the playoff format to 20 teams, with [four] wild card teams per conference,” TSN’s Gord Miller tweeted over the weekend. “The wild card teams would play in four single-elimination ‘play-in’ games, two in each conference, on the [Monday] and [Tuesday] after the regular season [ends].”

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The idea isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s believed that the 10-team concept was on the table when realignment was implemented for the 2013–14 season. But while the proposal may have been too radical at the time, there’s a sense that it may be gaining some momentum. And why not?

The NHL is in the entertainment business, and as the NCAA’s annual basketball tournament proves, there are few things more exciting than win-or-go-home games. Such games would be an ideal setup for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the best postseason in all of sports.

Imagine how it might play out this year. In the East, the seventh-ranked Capitals would host the 10th-seeded Flyers in a winner-take-all match, while the eighth-place Bruins and the ninth-ranked Panthers would square off for the right to advance. In the West, the Wild (No. 7) would face the Sharks (No. 10) and the defending champion Kings (No. 8) would host the Flames (No. 9).

Four must-win games. What’s not to like about that?

There’s no denying that an expanded wild card has worked well for baseball. In advance of the 2012 season, MLB implemented a revised system in which two wild-card teams from each league faced each other in one-game playoffs. The new system has not only produced some thrilling baseball—how about the Royals’ 9–8 win over the A’s in 12 innings last fall?—but also a World Series champion: the 2014 Giants.

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Cinderella stories like that are what make the postseason compelling. Sure, there’s something to be said for rewarding regular season success, but it makes for a more thrilling spring when underdogs are introduced into the mix. An expanded field then would not only increase interest down the stretch as more teams remained in the playoff hunt, but would also create the potential for unexpected drama.

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Ultimately, though, a decision on an expanded postseason won’t be based on fan excitement. Like every other move in the NHL, it likely will come down to money—and that’s why this idea seems like a sure winner. Expanding the playoffs would guarantee four must-watch games that would both engage broadcast partners and sponsors and fill arenas, further adding to the pile of Hockey-Related Revenue (HRR).

A bigger postseason also would help sell tickets down the stretch, with more teams remained in contention for one of the four spots. Again, more riches for HRR.

The only real downside? A quieter trade deadline, with more teams holding on to veterans to power their playoff dreams.

Of course, it’s all just talk at this point. Even if the idea continues to gain traction on the NHL side, it would require an amendment to the CBA to make it a reality—meaning that there’s still a battle to be waged between the league and the NHLPA. Still, it’s hard to imagine much pushback from the union. After all, it’s more money in the HRR pot, which is divided among everyone ... and it’s also a chance for players from four more teams to get a crack at the Stanley Cup.

Sounds like a winner.