Pretty sure we can all agree that the NHL’s qualifying round of the playoffs was all kinds of awesome. It certainly played to rave reviews. And after enduring almost five months without hockey, it was exactly what we all needed—a good dose of chaos and mayhem and all kinds of things happening every single night. It was, to borrow a title from William Shakespeare, a midsummer night’s dream.
And, thankfully, we’ll never see it again. The NHL has given every indication and made every promise that this is a one-off that was made necessary by the havoc wreaked on the industry by the coronavirus pandemic and that when things return to normal, so will the NHL’s system for determining and culling its playoff participants.
Just to be certain, I emailed deputy commissioner Bill Daly with the following query: “Just wanted to check, but now that we’ve seen the results of the qualifying series, do you think the league might reconsider its playoff format either by (a) instituting a play-in format of some kind and/or (b) reseeding teams after each round? (Please say no. Please say no.)” And his response to TheHockeyNews.com was blunt and concise: “No and no.”
Even without the qualifying round, the NHL has the best playoff format in professional sports. There has been a significant hue and cry to institute some sort of qualifying round in future years, based primarily on the fact that it was so compelling. But what the qualifying round basically did was replace the first round of the playoffs. Every year in the first round, we see that kind of unpredictability and chaos and we simply got it a little earlier this time around. I stand to be corrected on this, but my prediction is that the first round of the playoffs in 2020 will not be, on the whole, as exciting and compelling as it has been in previous years.
And in reality, the NHL already holds a pre-playoff qualifying tournament. In normal seasons, it goes from October to April, lasts 82 games and is generally referred to as the regular season. Starting in the 2021-22 season, it will be used to narrow the playoff field down to exactly half the teams in the league. That makes every single game important, every lost point a potentially fatal blow. It makes the regular season actually mean something. Is it difficult to make the playoffs in today’s NHL? Absolutely. But it’s supposed to be really, really hard to make the playoffs. Watering down the system by adding even two play-in teams per conference would rob fans of the intrigue and excitement of the last days and weeks of the season.
And as this corner has often said, this is the NHL, not the Port Huron Silver Stick Tournament. There’s nothing wrong with demanding excellence and giving teams very little margin for error. It’s that kind of pressure that creates the demand for trades and other personnel moves that fans find so compelling. If you’re looking for a format that gives out mulligans and second chances, the Ted Reeve Hockey Association’s ‘D’ Division House League Championship is the place to be. If you want to be playing in April, you should be an elite team. If you can’t do that, get better.
As far as going with the No. 1 vs. 8 traditional format and reseeding after each round, that’s another format wrinkle that the NHL has thought through extensively and it likes what it sees. Again, No. 1 vs. 8 and so on would be the nice and fair way to do things, but that’s what the league used to do and it didn’t enhance the division rivalries the way the league would have liked. It does, on occasion, result in two high-seeded teams facing each other in the second round of the playoffs and it sometimes results in a top regular-season team being ousted from the postseason by the time it’s only half over. But the point is that those two teams are actually guaranteed to meet each other. The league has put a priority on divisional rivalries and seeing them early in the playoff is what makes them so special.
Prior to the pandemic, the NHL had hit on a playoff format that was already wildly exciting and the absolute best in North American professional sports. During normal times, it doesn’t need to change a thing.