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NHL Return

The Benefits of Wild 24-Team NHL Playoffs, EVERY Year

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NHL playoffs Patric Hornqvist Pittsburgh Penguins

No one actually likes change. I didn’t like the 24-team NHL return format, nor was I in favor of it. The 20-team NHL playoffs with a small tournament among wild-card hopefuls intrigued me, and the Pittsburgh Penguins status as a third-place team would have exempted them from that play-in series, which I felt was proper.

I think the Penguins would have preferred something like that, too. PHN also argued for a weighted play-in series, at least for the five-seeds, which are third-place teams. The NBA has adopted a weighted model for their play-in series. But it’s done, and this craziness is fun.

Former NHL GM and current Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke described the tournament and some criticisms thusly, “the plan is a stunningly beautiful woman, and we’re sitting around criticizing her shoes.”

The overall idea of a tournament to enter the NHL playoffs has grown on me, like a weed. The idea that 24 teams across the league will have the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup is really growing on me.

Why don’t we do this every year? You know, minus the pandemic lockdown part.

Before you recoil in shock and horror, realize that during the salad days of the NHL,  the 1980s, 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs. Only five teams didn’t get a shot at the Stanley Cup, which made the Penguins playoff drought in that era even more stunning. We’ve adopted the old divisional playoff format, so why not adopt the same open door playoff model.

Remember the offensive explosion of the 1980s? If you’re not old enough to remember, you’ve seen the videos. In part, the NHL regular season mattered less to players. We had dynasties, all-time greats doing all-time great things, and the coaches didn’t yet control the game.

The regular season matters greatly, now. The loser point has jumbled the standings, so even teams as good as the Pittsburgh Penguins have to worry about the standings, and things occasionally get tense in February when the difference between a division leader and the wild-car is in single digits.

Without such importance placed on the regular-season games, there were a lot more goals, more action, and a lot less control by coaches. Not that hockey isn’t fun now, but there was a wild, fun nature to it then.

Would a 24-team playoff tournament get us back to that? I think it could get us closer.

A larger playoff field would diminish the regular season. I hear that argument, and I spin it back with the response, “good.” Let’s get back to diminishing the regular season just a little bit and letting the players actually PLAY. Would teams be as tight or controlled if they almost assuredly would make the playoffs anyway?

Coaches couldn’t flex as much control because players wouldn’t have as much fear of missing the playoffs.

Nope. Imagine talented players on talented teams breaking free from constraining systemic hockey. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin more often freed to play firewagon hockey, like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr before them.

Could the expanded playoff format inject more creativity back into the game?

And, perhaps a few deserving teams which were wrecked by injuries would squeak into the playoffs but be a potent force by Qualifying Round, too.

This year, that team would have been the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were probably going to miss the playoffs. In 2017, the Tampa Bay Lightning had such a playoff hangover from consecutive losses in the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final (to the Penguins), they missed the playoffs. Tampa Bay may have been the best, or second-best team in the Eastern Conference by March, but watched the playoffs.

Another Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning playoff series would have been magic. The 2016 version is still the greatest series I’ve ever witnessed. It was every bit as good as the Chicago Blackhawks vs. LA Kings, or even the Penguins vs. Detroit for the Stanley Cup.

Stanley Cup hangovers wouldn’t be as damaging with a 24-team NHL playoff format, either. That increases the odds we would see repeat winners. Fans say they love the parity of the new sports world, but did any team draw more attention than the New England Patriots over the past 20 years? We love parity, but we love seeing teams try to beat the best, even more.

Sure, teams like the Montreal Canadiens who won’t even open their practice facility this week because of a lack of demand, will make the playoffs. And teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins would quickly conquer them like a playoff warmup.

To add another 10 days to the NHL season would require shortening the regular season. Oh no! Again, a win-win.

Eight additional playoff series would make far more money for the league than five or ten more regular-season games.

Just imagine hockey back in the hands of players. Imagine, more offense because there would be less importance and less structure for a longer portion of the season. To me, that sounds like it would be more fun.

Soon, there will be 32 teams in the NHL. The 24-team format would send eight teams home to watch the spectacle.

I hated the idea. Now I love it…regardless of what shoes she’s wearing.

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