A season in professional sports is played with the intention of winning a championship. That’s basic sport, ain’t it? You play a regular season with the hope of making it to the proverbial second-season: The playoffs. To make it to the post-season, to contend during the marathon of the regular season, is an accomplishment unto itself, and to go further is the dream.
In the NFL with its short 16 game season, only 12 of the league’s 32 teams make it to the playoffs. In Major League Baseball, after the grueling 162 game season, only eight of the league’s 30 teams make it to the second-season. The NBA and NHL are both 82-game regular season leagues, they’re also passing 16 teams to the playoffs each season. The key difference is the NHL has 31 teams (and soon to be 32) while the NBA has 30.
The NFL and MLB formats make the playoffs a divine achievement by itself. The NBA and NHL have an open format to contention… And there’s talk in the NHL about expanding the contender option.
I cringe at the notion.
Sixteen teams making the playoffs in the NHL has been in effect for a while, watering down the entire concept of the playoffs when it began with a 21 team league in 1979-80. The chatter that went out in the media on Wednesday through Elliotte Friedman on Sportsnet was the notion of letting 20 teams make the post season. Video of the discussion (with Don MacLean and Brian Burke as well) can be found here.
If you want that many teams in the playoffs, why have a season at all? Or why have the playoffs? Just give Lord Stanley’s Cup to the team with the best record in the NHL. Or why have a season that lasts 82 games? Make it shorter and then go to tournament play! Every team has a chance to win it all!
…And if you took either of those ideas as intentionally serious options put forth by this writer, I think you missed my “cringe” remark.
Making the playoffs is a goal that sets the bar in regular-season play. To open the door to more clubs lowers that bar and sullies the very notion of season accomplishment. Oh, it could provide more income for the league by having more marquee games (said sardonically) on television locally and nationally, but that’s also a contradiction. The games aren’t so marquee if 60+ percent of the league is making the playoffs. Sure, a mediocre club making the post-season would draw fans, but how much hope and true contention is there when an under-.500 club has to play a series against a top tier team?
Tradition might suggest the NHL will expand the playoffs because they did just that in the past. Yet tradition can be killed off in the best interest of the sport. You don’t see goons as part of the roster of clubs, only there to fight and lay hits, now do you? It puts more focus on the game and players of skill. Fighting and big hits still happen (to say the least) but that’s the sport.
The idea of an expanded playoff system is a novelty, just like my in-jest suggestion of a tournament playoff system. It’d draw media attention but it wouldn’t last as a positive or draw of a wider fan base.
Using current examples of lowering the bar for the playoffs, the Anaheim Ducks have a losing record (8-9-3) and that gets them into a 20 team playoff system. The Washington Capitals, who won the Stanley Cup in 2018, are a mediocre 8-7-3, that’s actually a tie with the Carolina Hurricanes and only 2 to 4 points ahead of the bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference. Washington stands as the 10th seed. The “who” of that one makes it all seem fine, but it’d still be rewarding a severe drop in regular-season accomplishment while so many failing teams remain in contention.
In short, a 16 team playoff system with 31 or 32 teams is good as it has been. Lowering the bar to make the playoffs doesn’t accomplish anything for the league really except drawing out the post-season. An exclusive format benefits the league.