Should NHL playoff teams pick their opponents?

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

The Wysh List publishes every Friday.

The NHL's current playoff format needs to change. That much is clear. The players aren't keen on it, most of the coaches complain about it and the fans aren't enamored by it.

They took something that wasn't broken -- the 1-through-8 format -- and tried to fix it. In the process, they managed to devalue the NHL's elephantine 82-regular season for its best teams by bracketing the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning could end the season with a share of the NHL record for most points in a season (132) and their reward will be to face either the second-best team in the entire NHL (Boston) or the fifth-best (Toronto) in the second round, rather than reseeding the field to give them a more favorable foe. That's a joke.

Even if the current playoff format remains, protecting and rewarding your top seeds is a common-sense fix. But what about giving them an even greater advantage?

What about allowing them to select their opponents in the first round?

This was the idea put forth recently by Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle in a conversation with Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet. "The way the game is going, all the [advanced statistics], you could pick the team you match up best with. Better travel, everything," he said.

[The irony of a player who spent the majority of his career with the Coyotes and Panthers explaining what the NHL should do with its playoff format ... well, we digress...]

Also in this week's Wysh List: The Week in Gritty | Jersey Fouls
Life after hockey | Puck Headlines

As you might remember, this idea was put to the test last season by the Southern Professional Hockey League in what it called "The Challenge Round" The top three teams in the playoffs all had a chance to select their first-round opponents, from the teams seeded 5 through 8.

Peoria, the top seed, stayed with the No. 8 seeded Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs (that's a mouthful). No. 2 Macon, however, decided to go outside the box and pick No. 6 Evansville for their best-of-three series. Then No. 3 Pensacola opted not to play the No. 7-seeded Mississippi RiverKings, choosing No. 5 Knoxville instead. Huntsville, the No. 4 seed, actually ended up with the No. 7 RiverKings.

Wacky, right?

So how did it play out? All the top seeds still advanced save for Pensacola, which was upset by Knoxville in a two-game sweep. Why not take the No. 7 seed instead, in hindsight? Part of it was a hunch, and part of it was out of travel considerations.

The series opener was in Pensacola on a Thursday. The second game was in Knoxville, 271 miles away, on a Saturday. A third and deciding game would have been played in Birmingham, Alabama, at the home arena of the Bulls, who failed to qualify for the playoffs in their inaugural season. That's because Pensacola's home arena was booked for a cheerleading and dance championship that weekend, and Birmingham was located around halfway between Knoxville and Pensacola. But in losing two straight, they never made it there.

Huntsville, the team that did play the seventh seed? Well, they ended up winning the entire tournament.

The "Challenge Round" was successful enough that they're doing it again in the SPHL this season, with a big selection show on April 7 hosted by Matthew Harding and Mike Campos from TheSinBin.net.

Harding told me he expects a couple of teams might shift their opponents again this season, although top-seeded Peoria should still pick the No. 8 seeded team. He's a fan of the format, especially since the league's been so competitive this season, with four playoff teams within two points of each other. "I think the format allows for the intrigue to continue after the games have been played. While we know the playoff teams, we don't know the matchups, and to have those revealed in real-time through a selection process gives the format some added flair for fans and those who are involved," he said.

Could this work in another league?

"To be honest, I don't see that happening, especially with the division format. What makes the format work in the SPHL is that it's a 10-team league with no divisions, and all the teams are relatively close together. If you were to do this in the ECHL or AHL, travel costs would likely be prohibitive from it happening with any regularity," said Harding.

Of course, travel costs aren't really an issue in the NHL. The success or failure of a "pick your opponent" format in the NHL comes down to one simple factor: hubris. Would a higher seed dare select someone they're not already slated to face in the traditional bracket, and face the potential embarrassment of losing because of that choice? Would they dare give a team bulletin-board material the size of a highway billboard by declaring, through that selection, that they are the weakest team in the field?

Outside of an undeniable reason to do so -- like, say, a late-season injury to a star player or goaltender that renders a lower seed vulnerable -- it's hard to imagine a higher-seeded NHL playoff team handing that kind of motivation to an opponent.

But hey, at the very least, a "choose your opponent" format would do something that the current one fails to do, which is reward the best regular-season teams for their efforts.

The Week in Gritty

A bit of an up-and-down week for the old Gritster. We begin with the highlight, in which new Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper -- apparently cos-playing as an off-duty Chris Hemsworth -- wore a T-shirt featuring Gritty and the Phanatic as Vincent and Jules from "Pulp Fiction."

"There's a passage I got memorized, seems appropriate for this situation: Ezekiel 25:17. 'The path of the righteous mascot is beset on all sides...'"

Now for the down. Once again, Gritty was the target of a heinous, unanticipated assault ... from a child.

We're going to need a full DNA analysis on this kid to prove it's not the spawn of an intricate cloning project involving Ron Hextall.

Life after hockey

There's been an uptick in interest about the well-being of NHL players after their careers are done. Much of it has been about their health -- a positive development that brings the physical toll of the sport into focus. But there's also the less dire but just as vital question of what their next steps are in life after hockey.

Daniel Paille, who played 11 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins and briefly with the New York Rangers, wanted an answer to that question midway through his career.

"I wouldn't say that I thought about it pretty early on. But when you hit your mid-20s, I started realizing that it's not going to last forever. The body can only take so much," he explained recently.

So after playing his last NHL game in 2016 at age 32, Paille decided to pursue a business career. Recently, he completed a three-week course with Fanatics, the NHL's official apparel partner, as part of their "externship" program. He and former NHLer Nick Tarnasky were the first two hockey players to take part in the program, which had previously featured players longer since retirement. They were exposed to retail, sales, design, accounting and finance divisions.

(I told him that if it led to a gig with Fanatics, his only mission should be to ensure they never resurrect the Buffaslug sweater he wore in Buffalo as a novelty item. Keep them buried in whatever smoldering landfill in which they reside.)

Paille is part of the wave of players figuring out life after hockey before they're completely out of hockey. "It used to be when their careers ended, they didn't know what to do. So now there's progress, going forward," he said.

Of course, when it comes to getting your ducks in line for post-playing life, one of the oldest players in the NHL is the ultimate inspiration. "The classic example is Zdeno Chara," said Paille, who won a Cup with Chara in 2011. "Real estate, finance ... He's constantly learning new things."

I wrote more about life after hockey and the job training options available for players last May. Again, programs like these might not be as important as getting these guys the best medical care possible after their NHL days are done, but I think it's a vital way to ensure their transition away from the game is smooth and that they're able to find a next phase in life.

Jersey Fouls

From San Jose:

In fairness, you can put Sriracha on anything. But yes, still a Foul.

From Long Island:

Defacing your John Tavares jersey is as much a rite of passage for an Islanders fan these days as loathing the existence of the Rangers. It's just that many of them opted for some variation of "traitor" on the nameplate or switched to Butch Goring. Sergei Fedorov did wear No. 91 ... just never with the Islanders. Heck, Fedor Fedorov was never an Islander. So confused.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames once forgot his pants for a hockey practice ... and took the ice anyway. He chatted with us, as did Steve Dangle about the Toronto Maple Leafs and his new book. Plus NHL playoff talk, the Capitals at the White House and much more! Stream here or grab on iTunes here.

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