(Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac / Newsday)
2020 has seen several new items in NHL, chief among them a 24 team playoff format as well as the soon-to-be 32nd franchise in the Seattle Kraken.
Though New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz had his way, this postseason structure will be more than just a one and done for the league.
“I think the league is so tight and the league has grown over my time in the league with the number of teams, it should be a heavy consideration,” Trotz said as quoted Thursday in Newsday by Andrew Gross.
“There’s too much parity in the NHL,” said Trotz. “I think it’s something the league will consider for sure and I’d be in favor of it.
At first blush it may seem a major jump for a league that has not changed number of qualifying playoff teams since the 1979-80 season when the field expanded from 12 to 16 teams. During the Original Six era from ’42-’67 four teams qualified, doubling to eight from ’68-’74, and then jumping to 12 for the next five seasons.
It may come as a surprise for more recent fans that the past 26 seasons are the exception when it comes to the fraction of teams that make the playoffs, save for a four season stretch from ’71-’74. The other 61 percent of NHL seasons have seen two-thirds or more of franchises qualifying for the postseason. If the league doesn’t expand the Stanley Cup Playoffs by 2021-22 when the Kraken arrive it will be only the third time that only half of teams play beyond the regular season, joining ’73 and ’74.
That would make the NHL the third stingiest in terms of percentage of the league that makes the playoffs among the major North American men’s sports leagues. Only MLB (33.3%) and the NFL (37.5%) allow a smaller portion of their teams to make their second season. The NBA qualifies 53.3 percent, while 58.3 percent of MLS teams advance.
Even without considering the financial challenges the league will be facing for years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it makes no sense for the league to leave potential money on the table by refusing to expand the playoff format. More teams in the playoff race means more meaningful games in more markets down the stretch, as well as increasing the number of playoff gates available for a sport that leans more on ticket revenue.
The NFL and MLB can afford to be extra selective with their postseasons because teams have built in schedule benefits that NHL teams don’t have- the scarcity of NFL games means teams can charge top dollar ticket prices in larger stadiums, while added volume of MLB home dates give franchises more opportunities to fill the till. Additionally, both leagues plus the NBA benefit from having significantly higher paying deals for their television broadcast rights.
One of the most prevalent complaints against expanding the format is that it will devalue the regular season. However, the regular season has arguably never meant less for top teams, as the spread in points percentage between the top and bottom playoff qualifiers is smaller than it was prior to expansion in the 1998-99 season. Since the league introduced the overtime loss in ’99-’00, no team with a sub-.500 points percentage has made the playoffs, the lowest qualifier being the ’03 Islanders at .506.
During the 80’s, an average of either five to six teams with a sub-.500 points percentage made the playoffs. Part of that is because 76 percent of the sides in the 21 team league made it beyond the regular season.That in turn made it easier for dynasties like the Islanders and Oilers rise by having relative walkthroughs in the opening round.
By increasing the playoff pool from 16 to 24, the included teams would be more similar to the postseason makeup for much of the 90’s. During that decade an average of nearly three teams made the playoffs per season despite finishing below the break even mark in points percentage. Were the league to have had a 24 team playoff format when the Golden Knights debuted in the 2017-18 season, there would have been three under-.500 PT% teams in ’18 and two in ’19, while none made the cut this year.
Currently the biggest gripe amongst non-qualifying fanbases is that the number one overall pick in the draft will go to a team that advanced out of the regular season. If the expanded playoff is standardized, the teams that aren’t in the postseason should then become the only teams that are eligible for the lottery for the first overall selection. Of the teams that fall in the round of 24, they could easily be slotted in the following eight picks in the same manner that the league currently pegs teams after they’re eliminated from the playoffs.
Above all else, it’ll give fans an opportunity to watch more high level hockey, and provide even more avenues for heroes to rise and stories to be written. The league already has to deal with the uniqueness of the 2020 playoffs, and any record set (for instance goalie wins) will have to come with an asterisk should they revert to the 16-team format the following season. Why create the unnecessary headache?
With expansion on the horizon, and next season already impacted by how real world circumstances affected the league this year, now is the time to make the move to to a 24 team playoff permanent.
It’s more in line with historic proportions the NHL has had of playoff teams, will expand revenue opportunities for the league at a critical time, and will more greatly benefit teams that finish at the top of the regular season heap.
Trotz may be conservative behind the bench for the Isles, but the league would be wise to follow his progressive vision on playoff structure.
(Follow Hawk on Twitter: @EricTheHawk)
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