Should the NHL change the Stanley Cup playoffs?
The Chicago Blackhawks are in playoff race purgatory.
With 70 points through 69 games, Chicago remains mathematically relevant -- only the Detroit Red Wings have actually been formally eliminated in this NHL season -- but the Blackhawks have a less than 4% chance of making the postseason cut. They're 12 points out of third in the Central Division, meaning the wild card is the Blackhawks' only realistic option, and they're running out of games to bridge that gap.
But what if the math were different? What if, instead of two wild-card spots, there were four postseason berths on the line? What if, instead of a season that ends in Game No. 82, there were a one-and-done Game No. 83 for the ninth seed or the 10th seed in the conference, with entry into the 16-team Stanley Cup dance on the line?
What if the NHL expanded its playoff field for the first time in 40 years?
"I think you could certainly make the case for it," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told ESPN last week. "I mean, going back to when there were 21 teams, 16 made the playoffs. Now we're growing to 32, and there's still 16 teams. So it's certainly a high bar now to get in."
Yet whenever Stanley Cup playoff expansion comes up, the NHL's general managers, board of governors and especially the commissioner's office all sing the same tune: There's no widespread support for it, and currently no urgency to adopt it.
"I don't think there's an appetite, at large," Bowman continued. "There's been a lot of different proposals, and talk about it, but that's not something we've really discussed as a group. Maybe we will when there's another team officially in, and they're playing in the league. But that's not something we've even talked about as a group right now."
If that's the case, then the NHL is the only one of the "big four" U.S. pro sports leagues not talking about expanding its postseason. The siren's song of additional postseason revenue has proved undeniable, as evidenced by the following proposals in professional football, baseball and basketball:
The NFL is expected to increase its playoff field by one team in each conference when its new collective bargaining agreement is put in place.
Major League Baseball is reportedly on board with an increase in playoff teams from 10 to 14, and a revamped postseason format that would introduce a "choose your own opponent" gimmick for top-seeded teams in wild-card series.
The NBA is expected to discuss sweeping changes to its regular-season and postseason formats at the league's April meetings. That includes a "play-in tournament" in which the seventh seed hosts the eighth seed, with the winner securing the No. 7 seed in the conference; the loser faces the winner of a 9-seed vs. 10-seed game, with the No. 8 playoff berth at stake. Also: The NBA is considering a re-seed of its final four teams, so two teams from the same conference could play for the NBA title. Such as, for example, the Lakers facing the Clippers in the Finals.
Meanwhile, in the NHL ... it's status quo.
"There have been no formal discussions on [playoff expansion]," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN in January. "The fact is we like what we have. We think it works well. The NBA may have its own reasons for going in a different direction. But based on how our regular season and playoffs play out -- it's incredibly intense, unpredictable and exciting, as a result of our competitive balance -- we're not looking to make changes."
The NHL's players, however, might like to see some.
Within the NHLPA, there are annual discussions about the league's postseason format.
Sources say that while changing the format "hasn't been a focus to date," there are many within the players' association who would like to see the playoff field expanded, especially with Seattle arriving in 2021-22 as the 32nd NHL franchise. Even more want to see some variation on the current playoff format, whether that's a return to the conference-based 1-through-8 seeding that eliminates the need for wild cards or something more radical, such as getting rid of the conference structure altogether in favor of a leaguewide 1-through-16 playoff system.
"There's been a lot of chatter about the 1-through-16 seeding and taking the conferences out of it," Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones said. "I don't mind it. At the end of the day, the best is going to win. You're going to have to beat a good team to get there, regardless. Whether it's how it is now or you change it, you're going to have to play great hockey to win the Cup."
Jones, whose father, Popeye Jones, is an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers, said he was intrigued by the NBA's "re-seed the final four teams" proposal. Back in the day, conference rivals facing off for the Stanley Cup was commonplace, even in post-expansion seasons. The Montreal Canadiens faced the Boston Bruins twice for the Cup in the 1970s. The first Cup of the New York Islanders' dynasty was captured against the rival Philadelphia Flyers.
The two most marketable commodities in the NHL are rivalries and the Stanley Cup. Imagine two conference rivals battling for the ultimate prize: a Capitals vs. Penguins or Oilers vs. Flames Stanley Cup Final.
Jones considered a scenario in which Columbus could face its top rival, Pittsburgh, for the Stanley Cup.
"The fans would not mind that. At all," he said with a laugh.
His general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, sees both sides of the playoff expansion debate.
"I think every year there are some teams, that if we did expand it, would have a chance to do some damage in the playoffs. So in that way, we probably have some very qualified teams that are going to be disappointed at the end of the season. It's the most parity in professional sports. It's a great race. I think there are both sides to it," he told ESPN.
Kekalainen laughed. "And if we end up on the outside, I'll probably want to expand it to 18 teams."
The truth is, a team like Columbus probably wouldn't mind an expanded playoff field. The Jackets were sixth in the conference through 70 games this season. They had just a two-point lead in the wild-card race, with every team behind them having games in hand.
They could be a playoff team, as they've been for the past three seasons. Or they could be a team that just misses.
The Eastern Conference is the land of "just misses." Under the current playoff format since 2013-14, the average points difference between the last wild-card team and the top non-playoff qualifier in the East is two points. In the Western Conference, it's 3.8 points on average.
Since the 2005 lockout (14 seasons), the average points difference between the last wild card and the best non-playoff team is 1.9 points in the East and 3.1 points in the West. In 28 Eastern and Western conference playoff races since 2005, the No. 9 seed has been two or fewer points out.
In the past 20 NHL seasons, the average points difference between the last playoff seed and the next highest finisher is 2.5 in the East and 3.6 in the West. Out of 40 playoff races in 20 seasons, over half (22) featured the No. 9 seed just two or fewer points out.
So if there were a No. 8 vs. No. 9 play-in game -- the most modest of NHL playoff expansion proposals, according to members of the league's board of governors -- it would mostly feature teams that finished within one to four points of the playoffs.
There's a benefit for the league's top teams in having a play-in game. Not only do they get an extra bit of rest as the play-in round happens, but they also play a team that competed in a mentally taxing extra game on its schedule.
If the gripe from lower-seeded teams is that they shouldn't have to play a No. 9 or No. 10 seed in a play-in game or series in order to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament, there's a simple remedy for that: Just avoid the playoff bubble.
And as one Eastern Conference governor told ESPN: "It becomes really important to finish first or second, it becomes really important to finish sixth."
But Bettman has been quick to shoot down play-in game proposals.
"There are a couple of owners, a couple of GMs, a couple of coaches that think it would be great. Some have suggested a one-game play-in, but I guarantee you that if the eighth team that would otherwise get to play a seven-game series gets knocked out by a hot goaltender in a one-game play-in, that team is going to be every unhappy if the ninth and 10th teams had an opportunity to do that," the commissioner told Sportsnet in 2018.
While play-in games broaden the postseason for teams, they do present some challenges to players.
"The 8-vs.-9 play-in game might be tough," said Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel. "We play enough games as it is. The physical part of it is one thing, but just the emotional part of getting up for one more game and having it one-and-done. If you're the eighth team, you feel like you should be in the playoffs. So why would you allow the ninth team a chance to get it?"
Although he's not gung-ho about adding a playoff team, Eichel echoed the sentiment of many players who'd like to see the current postseason format change.
"With the [divisional format], you run into issues, like two teams that shouldn't play each other until later in the playoffs playing each other early. I think the playoff format they had, the 1-through-8, might work," he said. "Every team's journey to the Cup is different. It's built a certain way for that reason."
Of course, the postseason can be built in a variety of ways, as the NHL has shown during its century-plus of history. That extends to its minor league partner, too. Almost 20 years ago, the AHL allowed 20 of its 28 teams to make the playoffs, based on the NHL's urging.
In 2001, the AHL tested a new postseason format at the behest of the NHL, which wanted its prospects to get more postseason experience before getting promoted. So it expanded its playoff field to 20 teams.
There was a qualifying round that featured best-of-three series, with all three games at the higher seed, pitting the No. 7 team against No. 10 and the No. 8 seed against No. 9. The winners of those series were then seeded into the traditional 16-team tournament. In 2002, the Chicago Wolves emerged from the 7-vs.-10 play-in game to capture the Calder Cup, playing five playoff rounds.
But the gimmick was abandoned after a few seasons.
"It was tough to sell tickets on short turnaround, and it was expensive to book commercial travel on short notice. Not a great combination," said AHL VP of Communications Jason Chaimovitch. "But there were more meaningful games late in the regular season, and 80-90 extra players got pro playoff experience each year, so I can see why GMs saw a benefit."
The benefits of an expanded playoff field are many. As Chaimovitch noted, many more teams remain in the postseason hunt, so there are more meaningful games through the end of the season. Play-in games would give teams and players a taste of the postseason they wouldn't otherwise sample; and with a hot goalie and a little luck, anything can happen in the playoffs.
But there's an undeniable financial consideration here, too. Consider the revenue generated by teams for postseason games. A play-in game, or series, would be extremely beneficial to their bottom lines. Three years ago, The Tennessean reported that the Nashville Predators made "an estimated $1.2-1.5 million per home contest" in the first round of the playoffs.
For context: One home play-in game could, in theory, cover goalie Juuse Saros' salary for the season.
But for Predators GM David Poile, who has seen his share of different playoff formats during his four-decade NHL front-office career, envisioning any variation on the current divisional draw is difficult, unless the league decides to tackle its divisionally slanted schedule too.
"Never say never, but right now we play an unbalanced schedule. The travel is different from one conference to the other. It's one of these situations where you have to be careful what you wish for," Poile told 102.5 The Game in Nashville last week. "I wish we could come up with a different or better formula. But I'm not sure that we have that. Until you have a balanced schedule, I don't think another system is better than what we have now."
The players seem open to expansion of the playoffs. The general managers share that curiosity, albeit with caveats about what it should look like and the challenges in implementing it. But Bettman has steadfastly refused to consider adding teams, even when the formats wouldn't alter the perfection that is the 16-team Stanley Cup playoff field.
"I have no interest" is a line he has repeated on many occasions.
What Bettman does have an interest in, of course, is what the next collective bargaining agreement for the NHL will look like, and with it the potential windfall of the next U.S. television rights package.
It's no coincidence that the NFL's playoff expansion chatter happens as the league works out its next CBA, with the playoffs and its U.S. TV rights deals negotiated through 2022. It's no coincidence that MLB is talking about playoff expansion as its CBA and part of its TV package both expire in 2021.
The NHL media rights deal expires after the 2020-21 season, and the CBA expires in September 2022.
Perhaps, as with his peers in other sports, that opportunity will pique Bettman's interest in expanding the playoff field.
No matter what happens with the playoff format, there are always going to be complaints and inequities and unforeseen advantages from year to year. For players like Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks, how teams get in or where they're seeded ultimately doesn't matter.
"For me, if you want to win the Stanley Cup, you have to beat anybody in the NHL. So I don't care if it's first vs. eighth, or if you play somebody harder," he said.
"If you want the Cup, you have to beat everybody."
Additional reporting by Emily Kaplan.