The NHL’s plan for resuming the 2019-20 season is a 24-team playoff arrived at in a surprisingly smooth negotiation, agreed to by players, and expected to be made official soon.
That means, when hockey returns to the ice, all but seven teams in the league will have a shot at the Stanley Cup, a level of playoff participation that harkens back to before hockey’s mass expansion in the Gary Bettman era. It used to be that 16 of 21 NHL teams made the playoffs, a system that allowed the 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars, a 27-win team in what was then an 80-game regular season, not only to make the playoffs, but advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before finally losing to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The idea that the hockey playoffs reveal who the best team is in any season is laughable. Just ask last year’s Tampa Bay Lightning, who were 21 points ahead of everyone else in the league over six months, then got swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division.
It’s time to stop pretending that the Stanley Cup playoffs are about crowning hockey’s best team. It’s not that it’s just luck, but there are different factors in winning a two-month tournament than there are in competing to be the best over a full season. The last time a team won the Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup in the same season was 2013, when Chicago did it, and it hasn’t happened in a non-lockout season since Detroit in 2008.
Since those Red Wings won the Cup, more Presidents’ Trophy winners have lost in the first round of the playoffs (2009 Sharks, 2010 Capitals, 2012 Canucks, 2019 Lightning) than have made even the conference finals (2011 Canucks, 2013 Chicago, 2015 Rangers).
These are two different competitions, and hockey has a chance to come out of this realizing that, especially with the current collective bargaining agreement expiring after the 2021-22 season. If, in a pandemic-interrupted season, the NHL can expand the playoffs to 24 teams — in part to involve the Chicago, Montreal, and New York markets in the made-for-TV “hub city” hockey festival — there’s no reason when things are back to normal, and Seattle is part of the league, that the NHL can’t revolutionize itself and the very concept of playoffs.
Borrowing from, among other things, Mexican soccer, the NHL can split into two separate seasons. Unlike in soccer, the competitions would not be equal.
First would be the regular season, rebranded the Chase for the Presidents’ Trophy, in order to give some much-needed luster to the NHL’s honor for excellence over the long haul. Each team would play home-and-home with every other team in the league, a total of 62 games. The team with the most points would get the trophy, and would get it having played a balanced schedule — a major problem with the legitimacy of the Presidents’ Trophy under the current system. While last year’s Lightning clearly lapped the field, Tampa Bay also got to beat up on the awful Sabres, Red Wings, and Senators.
Following the coronation of the Presidents’ Trophy winner, the NHL would take a break. How long of a break? Enough to, say, send players to the Olympics in some years, but generally allow most of the league to get some rest and get healthy after grinding through five dozen hockey games.
Then, it would be time for the 32-team playoffs. To ramp back up after the break, teams in the four divisions would play home-and-homes with their rivals, 14 games that would determine the seedings in the upcoming tournament.
That would be 78 pre-tournament games, down four from the current length of the regular season schedule, but now there would be another round of playoffs, and every team would be getting at least four games. As in the current setup, 16 teams would be assured of going beyond 82, and unless every first-round series was a sweep, so would a few others.
The 32-team playoff would be five rounds of best-of-sevens. Simple enough, and a gauntlet that would require beating three division rivals, the survivor of the other division in the conference, and the other conference’s champion, to claim the Stanley Cup.
The downside of the worst teams in the NHL being part of the mix for the Cup is that there would be some extremely uncompetitive series in the first round. But there also would be the chance for more miracle runs, and the obvious appeal of knowing that every year, every team in the league would be part of the playoffs, guaranteeing the extra attention and revenues that come with having a shot at Stanley.
The NHL season is too long. Wouldn’t it be something if a shortened one could pave the way for a reimagining of the league’s structure?