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The NHL’s 24 team playoff format is good and should be permanent

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That’s right.

Montreal Canadiens v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL appears to be making progress toward a plan to re-start the league. That plan involves 24 teams, 12 in each conference, returning to play games of some kind this summer. While the details have not be decided yet, the various leaked plans have all included some notion of the bottom eight teams in each conference playing a shortened series while the top four teams would have a bye or play warm-up games to give them a chance to get back in shape before having to jump right into the playoffs.

Of course, more important than the playoff formatting is whether a professional hockey league can operate safely during a pandemic. I’m not going to pretend to be able to answer that question. I’m also not going to defer to the wisdom of a league that has been repeatedly wrong on issues of player safety. I have no idea what the right thing for professional sports leagues to do right now is. I also don’t trust the institutions in charge of those leagues to think of anything other than their own self interests in making that decision. And that’s about all I can say without veering into territory where I’m almost certain to say something incorrect and irresponsible.

So instead of focusing on the reality of the situation, I’m going to focus on the surrealism of the rest of the NHL season playing out in bio-domes while the global economy crashes around it. Because that’s an area where I can pontificate without consequence, which is one of the primary points of hockey blogging.

Much of the reaction to the league’s plan to restart has been negative. Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic wrote the best piece on the topic where he explained all the ways in which this format is unfair to some teams. The Penguins having to play a five game series against the Canadiens in order to advance to the real playoffs is a harsh punishment for a team that has been one of the best in the league by shot metrics all season. Five games series in hockey are exceedingly susceptible to upsets and seeing a team like Montreal with nineteen wins all season bounce a team that is a legitimate Cup contender in a play-in round would introduce a degree of randomness to this year’s playoffs that might make them seem too farcical to take seriously.

But here’s the thing. The NHL playoffs are already bullshit. If you think the NHL playoffs are about determining the best team, I’ve got some bad news for you. NHL teams are far too close in talent for seven games to determine which of two teams are better. The NHL playoffs are such a spectacle precisely because of the potential for variance in outcomes. The fact that anything can happen in the NHL playoffs is one of the primary selling points in the league.

I wrote about this before the playoffs last season:

Whenever I think about this, I always go back to a graphic made by Michael Lopez. You can see it on slide 31 here. In the NBA and NFL, the better team wins most of the time. In MLB and the NHL, outcomes are closer to a coin flip. MLB has traditionally handled this by inviting fewer teams to their postseason. By only allowing the best teams into the tournament, they minimize the likelihood of an undeserving team winning.

Hockey does no such thing. The NHL allows over half of the league into its tournament, awards no advantages to higher seeds other than one extra game of home-ice, and waits for the chaos to unfurl. This is what people love about the NHL playoffs. Especially casual fans, fans of non-playoff teams in a given year, and fans of teams in the muddy middle. Knowing anything can happen on any night makes every game worth watching and gives every fan of every team that makes the tournament at least a sliver of hope.

And so, I’m not sure why opening the floodgates to further weirdness is so objectionable. I go the opposite direction. I like the format proposed by the NHL and I wouldn’t mind seeing it become permanent.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We enjoy the NHL playoffs because we want the chaos adrenaline. But for some reason, lots of folks have decided they want precisely the dosage of chaos adrenaline they get now and no more. That’s nonsense. Up the dosage. If we’re doing this, let’s do it all the way. Sure the Penguins getting ousted by a Habs team that was in contention for a high draft pick would be unfair. But we’re here for the unfairness. That’s the point.

The more teams that are allowed in the playoffs, the more we’ll get absurd upsets. And the more we get absurd upsets, the more obvious the inherent absurdity of determining the best team in the league based on seven games series will become. Hell, let everyone in the post season tournament. Let’s see the worst team in the league ride a hot goalie into the third round and then listen to pundits squirm as they try to find some notion of justice in that only to discover that justice does not exist and was always ex post facto narrative construction to soothe their own discomfort with uncertainty.

Let’s pull back the curtain and expose the drunken idiot wizard mashing buttons on a 1980s Macintosh computer. The more we admit to ourselves that basing opinions entirely on the playoffs is the equivalent of treating a random number generator as a truth machine, the more we can start to think about success in hockey in a more balanced way.

The playoffs are a fun tournament. The regular season tells us who the best team is over a large number of games. The idea that we have to preserve the sanctity of the playoffs is silly. Let the playoffs be what they are. And in the process, place more weight in regular season performance. The most fun part doesn’t also have to be the most important part.

So instead of trying to maintain the charade that the playoffs are the most fun and the most important, let each part of the season exist on its own. Recognize the regular season as the best way to determine which team played the best hockey in a given season and recognize the playoffs as a syringe full of chaos adrenaline.

Placing importance on both instead of making the playoffs all or nothing also allows for the unique accomplishment of winning both the regular season and the tournament. That’s essentially a double championship and should be celebrated as such. But instead, winning the regular is considered a footnote at best for teams that manage to be the best all year and lift the Stanley Cup when the time comes.

So unclutch your pearls. Let the surreality wash over you like a Salvador Dali painting. The playoffs have never been a good way of determining the best team. But they have been an unmatched way of creating a sporting spectacle. And if the league follows through on their plan, that spectacle will become even more spectacular this summer.