The Ideal NHL Playoff Format

The NHL season has started. The Oilers are off to a slow start. The Golden Knights have are off to a hot start. We’re currently about ten regular season games in. Then there are 72 games more. And, if you’re lucky, your team will play another 20 or so playoff games. At that point, it will be mid-June. The hockey season is ten months long. Ten long months of pounding bodies, relentless schedules and road-weary bodies. Even on the fans, and I consider myself a die-hard, it is an extensive, bloated schedule that tests commitment.

 

The reasoning for the long season is simple of course. A longer season means more tickets purchased, more TV games with paid advertisements and more opportunities to sell merchandise. Hockey, like all sports, is a business.

But the bloated schedule results in tired athletes, poorer quality hockey and viewer fatigue. It should be changed to allow the season to reach its natural conclusion and not pushed past the abilities of professional athletes.

The preseason should be moved up to the beginning of September. Then the season can start at the end of the month. And instead of 82 games, it should be shortened to 68. This will keep the players fresher and in turn will produce better hockey games. It will also add more importance to each game as points will mean more in a shorter season. The points system should also be changed to a 3-2-1 system instead of a 2-1 system. Making regulation wins 3 points, overtime/shootout wins 2 points and overtime losses 1 point will push teams to try harder to win in regulation, reducing the tendency of tied teams to play it safe late in games.

And the playoffs are entirely too long. They last two months and instead of build in quality, they lessen. The earliest playoff games are fantastic matches that utilize creativity and hard work. By the time the finals start, the last two teams are so worn down that it’s a battle of attrition, players just barely able to make simple passes, throwing pucks at the net and hoping they go in. And in June, with summer fully kicked in, ice conditions are usually terrible, resulting in poor puck management and sloppy skating.

Both the NFL and major league baseball do a great job of using a short tournament to build suspense. Baseball playoffs are three rounds and last about three weeks. The Superbowl is one game. It’s hard to maintain championship excitement over two months, no matter how compelling the playoff games may be. And more than any other sport, hockey fans are more passionate about their team rather than the sport overall. If the Flyers lose in the first round, it’s hard to get their fans to watch six more weeks of other teams play for a championship they won’t win. Most hockey fans, myself included, are team first and hockey second. Everyone watches the Super Bowl. Only two cities watch the NHL Finals.

If the playoffs were shorter, the anticipation to each game would mount and burnout would be less of a factor for the fans. And with a shorter season for the players, the quality of hockey would be better to the very last game. Stars such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, PK Subban and Steven Stamkos would still be able to display their creativity on the biggest stage of the year instead of running on fumes.

I would suggest that the top three teams in each division make the playoffs. The division winners get byes in the first round of the playoffs while the two lower teams in each division play a best of 5 playoff series. This rewards the teams that do well in the regular season, adding further incentive. The winners of the lower series go on to play the division winners in another best of 5 series. The four division champions then play the conference finals in a best of 7, but instead of being broken down into two Eastern teams and two Western teams, the point totals from each will determine who plays who. Now you could realistically align all the playoff rounds by points totals instead of geography, but that would unfairly punish teams travel-wise for simple luck so perhaps sticking with East and West up until the conference finals works best. Then the Finals remain a best of 7 and could realistically feature any two teams as long as they didn’t play in the same division.

This would ensure that the playoffs end around early May, before summer really kicks in, and, hypothetically, the quality of hockey will still be pretty high. The only deviance from this schedule would be the inclusion of the Olympics, which the NHL was foolish not to partake in next year. It’s worth pushing the season back to showcase hockey on the world’s biggest stage.

Now, this schedule will never happen. As I said at the beginning, the NHL is a business and businesses are meant to make money. If anything, the schedule will get longer before it gets shorter. But it is nice to envision an NHL season that emphasizes quality over quantity.

 

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