It’s understandable that the Minnesota Wild have a little trouble with the NHL playoff format. In Year 2 of the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter era, the league adopted a divisional playoff format, which has remained unchanged ever since. The format is good for a few things, mainly skewing the early rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs toward rivalries. But for Minnesota, it had an unpleasant added effect.
He funneled the best teams in Wild history into the wood chipper known as the Central Division of the 2010s. Coming up against the Chicago Blackhawks juggernaut every year capped their second-round cap. You can say, hey if minnesota couldn’t beat the blackhawks they shouldn’t have been a conference finals team. Sure. But wow, was it disheartening as a fan to know that playing Chicago in the second round was inevitable.
Heck, even now the Division Playoff format is a drag. Under a typical 1-8 playoff system, Minnesota would battle with the Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues for second place in the Western Conference and the right to play against a weaker seventh seed. Their worst possible finish would be fourth place, setting up a game against the (currently) fifth-seeded Edmonton Oilers. Given Minnesota’s 3-0 record against them this year, they would take that, thank you very much.
Instead, they will face the Blues in the first round no matter what. That will be true, even if the Wild and Blues finish with the second and third most points in the West, a real possibility. Over the next month, this silly and bad playoff format will undoubtedly come under intense scrutiny in the State of Hockey. We will certainly hear the local calls for change, especially if they lose.
But you know what won’t help the Wild? Worst the playoffs. That’s what ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski offers in his article “Why the NHL Needs to Expand the Stanley Cup Playoffs.” In it, he proposes to follow the leads of the NFL, MLB and NBA in expanding their playoff format. This would follow the NBA model of a play-in tournament between the 7th and 10th seeds, followed by a reseed 1-8 format.
So if you’re sad about not seeing a playoff game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders, I guess that’s good news.
Look, no one is saying the Wild is in a good position or that the current playoff format is good. If the Wild and the Blues meet as the second and third best teams in the West, that’s awful and bad. It would be like the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs facing each other in the NFL Divisional Round. Where Duke and Texas Tech go head-to-head on Day 1 of March Madness. It’s madness!
If they ship the Blues, Minnesota’s reward would be to come up against the No. 1 seed and potential President’s Trophy winner Colorado Avalanche. Maybe this new Wild look is ready for that challenge. Who knows? But the thing is, they shouldn’t have to. Additionally, this divisional format sets up bizarre late-playoff matchups that don’t showcase the league at its best.
That probably needs to change, but bringing in teams that just don’t belong in the playoffs only makes this problem worse.
Look at the Montreal Canadiens last year. It was a 24-21-11 team (eight more losses than wins!!) that made the playoffs due to their fourth seed in a terrible realigned all-Canadian division. After beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, the only thing stopping them from making the conference final was the Winnipeg Jets, who finished third in the North Division.
This is a second-round game between the 14th-best team in the NHL and the 18th-best, with the 18th-best team moving on. Meanwhile, the teams battling it out in the Wild’s division were Colorado and the Vegas Golden Knights, who scored the most points in the NHL. Who wanted to see one of the top two teams in the league bounce back in Round 2, while a bad Canadian team headed to the Conference Finals? Outside of Montreal, it should have been nobody.
You have to give Montreal credit for beating Vegas to qualify for the Stanley Cup Finals, but Vegas had a much tougher path to follow. They faced the ninth-best, then the best team to reach the third set. Montreal Road was fifth best, then 14th best. It was competitively unbalanced and created a boring cup final, where Tampa Bay beat a team that didn’t belong on the ice with them.
In the one season they rolled out an expanded playoff format (the year of bubble hockey), they had this problem as well. With 24 teams in the playoffs, the NHL lost much of its star power even before the field was reduced to 16 teams. The 24th and 23rd best teams in the league eliminated Top 10 teams with the Hart Trophy winning duos of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, then Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The 20th-ranked Vancouver Canucks knocked out St. Louis in the first round, the defending Cup champions and the top team in the West.
Again you can say, Win your playoff games against these lowly teams. But there’s a problem with adopting a play-in tournament that doesn’t exist with the NBA: Anyone can win a seven-game series.
Theoretically, that’s true in the NBA. But in practice, the Miami Heat or Phoenix Suns are very unlikely to lose to a play-in team. According to a 2018 study, a seven-game NBA streak sees the best team progress 80% of the time.
The influence of goaltenders and their seemingly random hot and cold streaks evens things out significantly in the NHL. The best team only advances 60% of the time, which is little better than a draw. To put that into context, it’s about the same odds the Wild beat the Canucks at home last Thursday night. Sure, a win in Vancouver would be a surprise, but no one would. shocked if they did.
There’s a point in giving a team like Vegas, which has a great but injury-riddled roster, a mulligan if they miss the playoffs. But that’s not worth the odds of a completely awful team like the Winnipeg Jets or the Blue Jackets getting hot goaltenders, winning a couple of games tossed and running a deep run. No one needs to see No. 1 defender Neal Pionk or No. 1 center Jack Roslovic get trampled after accidentally playing in the Cup final.
One can wonder about the harm of letting 20 teams make the playoffs, given that half the league is already entering. But if anything, it’s a case for contracting the playoffs, not developing. Adopt a series of play-ins where teams 1 to 4 enter automatically, while teams 5 to 12 come out? Is it gimmicky? Sure. But at least the gimmick is very likely to produce compelling clashes with elite teams. At worst, it would join 3-on-3 overtime in the “At least it’s fun” gimmick category.
And wow, look how tight these races get with a 12-team format that takes the Top 6 teams from each conference! The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Pengins and Washington Capitals are all within three points of each other for the fifth and sixth seeds (as of Thursday). The sixth-placed Nashville Predators hold a one-point and two-point lead, respectively, over the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars. It’s more dramatic in the regular season than it would be in a 20-team format, or even now.
Of course, that’s not an option because fewer teams in the playoffs means less revenue. But despite being an easy money maker, Wyshynski cites Gary Bettman as the format’s biggest hurdle. It’s weird because the NHL should theoretically want the money printing machine to go away brrrrrrrr.
But whether he realizes this or makes the right marketing decision by accident, Bettman is doing the right thing by not taking easy money here. The best way to market the game isn’t to build a bigger stage, it’s to try to get the best teams on the biggest stage. Letting more bad clubs in the dance does the opposite in a way it doesn’t for the NBA. The divisional format hurts that cause somewhat, but with the Cup Finals dominated over the past decade by star teams like Chicago, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Washington and Boston, they generally do well.
Yes, there are valid points in the article. Yes, teams like St. Louis and Minnesota have nothing to play for that can change their fate. And yes, his secondary proposal to abandon the divisional format is a good one. The problem is that everything can be solved by reimplementing a 1-8 format. It’s a solution that leads to better matchups later in the playoffs and, as a bonus, gives the Wild some breathing room in Round 1. The State of Hockey could easily have it all! There’s no need to add a gimmick that waters down the playoffs and subjects fans to bad hockey.