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Lightning Round: Some thoughts on the future of the NHL playoffs

Will the post season change permanently?

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Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Rangers - Game Seven

The playoff plan for this season is in place and its something that fans aren’t quite sure about what they think about it. Actually, the league isn’t quite sure either. The first round is the post season, but not the play-offs. It’s the round of sixteen where the play-offs begin (at least for trade purposes).

The league really had a chance to blow things up and truly experiment since this is such a unique season. With travel concerns all but eliminated the league could have gone away from the conference/division method of dividing up the teams and gone strictly to a 1-16 ranking and play that way. That would have been a neat experiment and led to some match-ups not normally seen in the post season.

They could have gone full bonkers and had a 31-team single elimination tournament. Or at least single-elimination until they got to the final two teams. Maybe a World Cup style tournament with group play and knock out stages could have been held. I’m all for chaos and wouldn’t the conspiracy takes be great if the Lightning, Bruins and Capitals ended up in one group while the Leafs had the Red Wings and Devils in theirs?

In the end they dipped their toes into change and managed to come up with something that doesn’t stray too far away from their normal way of doing things but is enough of a change to annoy at least a portion of their fan base.

The alteration is based on unusual circumstances, but will it open the NHL for permanent changes in the future? Since the WHA absorption in 1979-80, sixteen teams have made the playoffs. In that first year there were only five teams that didn’t qualify. Things haven’t changed despite numerous expansions. With Seattle coming into the league it’ll be at the point where half of the league doesn’t make the post season. Is that a good thing? Should there be more playoff spots available?

Yes.

From a competition aspect it keeps more teams in the running at the end of the year. More teams with shots at the playoffs means more interest around the league and could lead to better competition down the stretch. If more teams still have a vested interested in the post season then that leads to less teams tanking for the latest franchise savior.

From a financial aspect it makes more sense as well. The league would be able to charge playoff-level prices for more games as well as entice ad sponsors with games that have more people watching. In a league where the players and owners theoretically split hockey related revenue down the middle, it benefits both sides to have a bigger pot of gold to divvy up at the end of the year.

Does it need to be 24 teams? Probably not. That makes things a bit too unwieldy in my opinion. They could mimic the changes that college basketball made a few years ago and have a play-in round for the final spots in each conference. Even if you’re not a fan of a particular team a play-in game (or three game series) would be great to watch.

Since I can’t let a decent plan go without adding one tweak that will never get approved I say the NHL should take it even further. Make one of those play-in spots a true wild card.

What if the NHL conducted a play-in tournament that was open to any hockey team in the world not in the playoffs? Your beer league team - yup. An AHL team - yup. Modo Hockey - the more Swedes the better. An all-star junior hockey team - yup. The cast of Youngblood reunited - why not? The only catch is an entry fee of a yet to be determined amount. Limit the tournament to 32 teams and pick the teams by lottery (if your team doesn’t get picked you get most of your money back but a portion is kept and donated to charity).

Then they play in a single elimination tournament to decide the final entry spot and rake in the money and the social media frenzy. Imagine if a bunch of junior hockey players are the second coming of Team North America and play their way into the NHL post season

Before you get your hackles raised too high about dishonoring the sacred way of always doing something the same way because that’s how it’s always been done there is historical precedent for this. Back in the day, way back in the day, you could challenge the reigning Stanley Cup champion whenever you wanted to. So why not bring back that little aspect of hockey?

Knowing the NHL as we do, the chances of them doing anything fun or different are remote. Still, it’s nice to dream isn’t it?

News and Notes:

The Lightning added their message of solidarity following the events of the last week:

Team captain Steven Stamkos added his thoughts as well:

As did the Syracuse Crunch:

A few days ago Commissioner (and Hall of Famer) Gary Bettman was on The Ray & Dregs Hockey Podcast. During the podcast (which was recorded before the George Floyd protests) Mr. Bettman spoke of keeping the league’s options open in regards to where the hub cities would be located. From the sounds of it a decision won’t take place for at least another two weeks, with an announcement coming in about three weeks.

That would put it towards the end of June and while it’s all but given that Las Vegas will be one city a lot of factors still remain in regards to the second. He acknowledged that Canada might not be an option due to their quarantine requirements. It would do the league little good to go through a two-week training camp only to have to pause again to satisfy the Canadian requirements.

If we’ve learned anything from 2020 so far, a lot can change in a month or so. It sounds like the NHL and the players are at least working together to adapt to those changes in order to provide the best possible solution.

Speaking of podcasts, JustinG. somehow ended up on one. He spoke with Tyler Kuehl of The Kuehl Podcast about the Lightning and their chances in the post season. Yes, he did manage to shoehorn both the Baltimore Orioles and Phil Esposito into a conversation that was about the 2019-20 Lightning. (He joins the show about an hour into it).

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day, wash your hands, and be kind to one another.