Should the NHL Implement a Play-In Tournament?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - JULY 28: The Toronto Maple Leafs honor Leafs legend Eddie Stack before an exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on July 28, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

After watching the NBA’s play-in tournament for the 2021 postseason it dawned on me that the NHL could absolutely take a page from their book and adopt a version of their own. There was plenty of drama during the play-in games that could have even a casual NBA fan like myself engaged. If the NHL added this idea it could be something that could help draw even more eyes to the game and help grow the NHL which is something this league sorely needs.

The NBA format is simple enough:

The top 6 teams of each conference automatically make the playoffs down from 8 in previous years before COVID. The remaining 7th and 8th place teams now joined the 9th and 10th place teams in the play-in tournament from both conferences. This increased the total of playoff teams to 20, up 4 from the previous format. The play-in tournament would determine the final two playoff spots per conference. The 7th seed hosts the 8th in a one-game matchup with the winner becoming the final 7th seed for the playoffs. The 9th seed hosts the 10th in a one-game matchup with the loser eliminated from contention. The loser of the 7th vs. 8th seed game hosts the winner of the 9th vs. 10th seed with the winner becoming the final 8th seed for the playoffs.

How did it look for this season’s NBA play-in tournament?

Eastern Conference

  • No. 7 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards
  • No. 9 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 10 Charlotte Hornets 

Western Conference

  • No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Golden State Warriors 
  • No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 10 San Antonio Spurs

When the dust settled on the play-in tournament, Boston and Washington both retained their original seeding after eliminating Indiana and Charlotte for the East. In the West, the Los Angeles Lakers retained the 7th seed while Golden State was eliminated by the 9th seed Memphis Grizzlies. From this point the playoffs resumed under the traditional 1-8 per conference seeding matchups:

How could the NHL implement and why should they?

First, Imagine adding some play-in games to help determine the 7-8 seeds in both conferences before starting the postseason. Mirroring the NBA, the NHL could follow suit with the same format and increase the teams fighting for a chance at the Stanley Cup to 20. While for many just the thought would make you shudder, consider that the NHL has increased to 32 teams (2 more than the NBA) and is currently using the same model at its core of 16 playoff teams that has been in place since the 1979-80 season. That season featured 21 clubs and the “old-time hockey” meant only 1 team from each division missed the playoffs outside of the Smythe Division which had 6 clubs. A total of 5 teams missed the playoffs compared to nowadays where that number is 15. With increasing the format to even out the field, maybe the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs could find themselves in a true fight to win the Cup again. Even with increasing to 20, there are still 12 teams that would miss out annually.

One of the biggest positives out of adopting the NBA’s playoff format would be that it would eliminate the NHL’s current pre-COVID format that a vast majority of fans hate. With the division heavy emphasis and top 3 of each making the postseason, teams stacked in a tougher division face a difficult fate of fighting for only 2 spots. The NHL needs to adopt the 1-8 seeding and do away with the division seeding because the randomness does create some better playoff matchups and rivalries than we currently have. It will also help eliminate juggernaut matchups happening in the early rounds that are better suited for the league in general to happen later towards the Conference final

The new playoff format would also create some much needed drama and juice for the final games of the season. Most times going into the postseason we see teams play games that can mean absolutely nothing if they are a playoff team. Having this format would have teams trying to win right down to game 82 of the season because you wouldn’t want to land in the bottom of the bracket and face do or die games.

Just the pure excitement and drama that the NBA created in their win or go home game between the Warriors and Grizzlies was spectacular. Showcasing Edmonton against Winnipeg in a potential win or go home game unopposed by other playoff matchups would help create drama and some sizzle that this league desperately needs. Also showcasing your best player on a stage like that also helps with the growth of the game.

Had the NHL implemented this format under normal circumstances what would the play-in have looked like today?

Eastern Conference

  • No. 7 Boston Bruins vs. No. 8 New York Islanders
  • No. 9 New York Rangers vs. No 10. Montreal Canadiens

Western Conference

  • No. 7 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 8 Dallas Stars
  • No. 9 Calgary Flames vs. No 10. Chicago Blackhawks

I firmly believe that hockey is the greatest sport in the world but the problem is the NHL does way too much to stunt its own growth. Adapting “their style” and infusing a little sizzle from the NBA can help a league that sorely needs positive publicity. The NHL needs to grow and adapt itself to the times and help gain some more casual viewers to help growing this game along a broader audience.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Man…. play in…. play out… play this.. play that. I tell ya what the NHL needs man… they need a tournament where 8 teams in each conference play off in the ultimate elimination challenge… a best of 7 series each round. The last team standing wins the Stanley Cup…

    I’d call it…. the Stanley Cup Playoffs……

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