• Expanding the Playoffs

    by  • December 30, 2012 • Uncategorized • 11 Comments

    There’s a sort of sub-discussion going on amongst the media as we wait for the lockout to end about what the NHL will do for the fans. Free Centre Ice seems to be hotly rumoured as has another idea: expanding the playoffs. The idea, as I understand it, is that the NHL would go from having 16 teams make the playoffs to having 20 teams make the playoffs with, presumably, the seven seed playing against the ten seed and the eight seed playing against the nine seed in some sort of abbreviated preliminary round. I’m inclined to believe that these reports have some substance and that the league is going to do this.

    67% of the teams making the playoffs isn’t without precedent in NHL history, of course. It’s actually been the norm in more years than it hasn’t been. Since the folding of the Brooklyn Americans after the 1941-42 season, the NHL has played 69 seasons. Only 22 of those have seen fewer than 67% of the NHL’s teams make the playoffs. The idea of preliminary rounds isn’t without historical precedent either – the NHL played these in the mid-70s when it had an awkward number of teams.

    Baseball has, of course, made this change itself recently, adding a fifth team to the playoffs and forcing the wildcard teams to play off for the right to move on. The games were heavily viewed by baseball fans. If we assume three game series were played, it would provide the NHL with four to six extra nights of high stakes games to sell to TV networks. It would also up the chances of Canadian teams appearing in the playoffs, something that I suspect has real value to the NHL when it comes to selling TV rights to Canadian networks. If this rule had been in place over the last seven years, there would have been nine additional Canadian teams in the playoffs, all playing at least two incredibly high stakes games.

    The change would also add some meaning to the regular season. There would be increased interest in seeing your team achieve one of the top two spots or, at least, finish no worse than sixth. I’ve talked before about how, in European sport, most teams are playing for something all year long, whether it be titles, European qualification, European qualification in a crappier tournament or avoiding relegation and why I think that’s superior in terms of maintaining fan interest. Playoff seeding has come to mean less and less as the NHL has increased parity, which reduces the importance of the regular season outside of cities that are on the playoff bubble. Using the regular season to create more real rewards in terms of time off at the start of the playoffs and the opportunity to play a tired team in the first round should create more interest in the regular season.

    John Collins, the NHL’s Chief Operating Officer, pops up in Bruce Dowbiggin’s column from time to time. He’s struck me as a guy who wants to create more events for the NHL, games that people feel they have to watch. Expanding the playoffs like this would fit with that, I think – the games would be wildly popular with TV viewers and they’d make the regular season more relevant. The NHL’s season being what it is – way too long – I think I’m in favour of this, because of the increased relevance of those regular season games. It fits with what the league has tried to do in recent years, it’s been well received in other leagues, it’s not historically unprecedented, it makes the regular season more relevant and it would make a pile of money. Seems safe to assume that it’s happening.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com

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    11 Responses to Expanding the Playoffs

    1. Triumph
      December 30, 2012 at

      It’s funny – as I mentioned on Twitter, I was working on an article for NHLNumbers a month or so ago that explored this possibility and I rejected it – I rejected it so much that I didn’t think people would take the article seriously had I published it.

      My issue is that a play-in series would not generate fan interest anywhere if it were e.g. Carolina vs. Florida for the right to play a 7 game series. Obviously the chance of this is remote, but there’s certainly a strong possibility that there will be uncompelling matchups. If it’s a play in game, I think that’s fine, but if it’s a play in series? You’ve got to budget 4 days for these series, plus a day on either end for rest, and so you’re delaying the start of the playoffs by 6 days. Then you’ve got fans of teams 3-6 waiting for these series to play out. I do think that it makes the regular season more meaningful, I guess, but is being ‘rested’ in the NHL a good thing? Obviously in MLB it is because teams can order their pitchers in a certain way, and we know NFL teams perform better in the regular season coming off the bye, but I’m not convinced NHL teams benefit a huge amount from it – I guess I’d want to look at how teams do coming off 4+ days rest, typically.

    2. Woodguy
      December 30, 2012 at

      2 things were responsible for the amazing year-over-year increases in NHL revenue since the last lockout.

      1) The mass broadcasting of HDTV, which took off like a rocket in 2005 to greet the NHL when it came back from the lockout

      2) John Collins – If Bettman loses him (there have been rumblings he’s pretty pissed off about the lockout and may leave the NHL), they may not be able to replace him and the league would certainly suffer.

      If Collins is still around and wants more teams in the playoffs, it will happen.

      Probably a good thing. I agree with Tyler that more meaningful games is better.

      Being emotionally invested in the game make for a better fan experience.

      Which is also why the Bettman point will exist forever and the 3pt win will not.

      Meaningful games for more teams for a longer period of time = more emotionally invested fans.

      Another note on point #1. Have you watched a non-HD hockey feed lately? Its almost unwatchable, and I consider myself a big fan of the game.

      Sports Media in the US used to always say “Hockey is much better live than on TV, which is why it will remain a niche sport”

      That used to be true as the standard def feed wasn’t easy for a casual or new fan to watch, but many of us hockey fans couldn’t appreciate that (and laughed at the Fox blue-puck thing)

      Now that we all watch in HD and can’t stand SD, I understand it now. It was awful, but it was all we knew and so we watched. We also knew the game, so we *knew* where the puck was even when we didn’t actually see it. The new fan didn’t have that and it made for a shitty TV watching experience.

      Now that HD is “standard” and TV quality increases while TV prices decrease, its no wonder that the NHL grew like a bad weed in a shitty economy. Many sports fans are finally seeing what “hockey fans” have seen for years. Hockey at its highest level is pretty awesome and exciting.

      Now that a new fans can see that while sitting at the bar watching a 75″ TV with a HD feed, the fan base will continue to grow.

      • cm
        January 2, 2013 at

        WG I had this exact discussion with a group of Americans while in a bar in Florida watching a Monday night football game. They said that HD has made hockey watchable and has given them a new appreciation for the game. They also mentioned that the lockout has hurt the game just as it was gaining traction. It didn’t seem that they missed hockey but that if it was on they would watch.

        In that sense I get the feeling that those fans will be back.

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    4. Mr DeBakey
      December 31, 2012 at

      I don’t watch HDTV.
      Of course, living at the epicenter of Exciting Last Place Hockey, I hardly watch the games anymore.
      Oiliogosphere Gamethreads are good though.

      20 teams in the play-offs?
      Four 5-team pools playing a double round-robin – 8 games per team.
      The Number 1 seed gets five home games, the 5th seed three.
      The 2nd, 3rd and 4th seeds play four home, four away.
      The top 2 teams from each pool advance to the best-of-seven Quarter Finals.
      Easy-Peasy.

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    6. Tom Benjamin
      December 31, 2012 at

      I’m not convinced that expanding the playoffs is a good idea, although I agree that it is probably a done deal.

      Having 20 teams make the playoffs would not defy historical precedent, but throughout that history one of the main criticisms the league faced was that too many teams made the playoffs. It cheapened the regular season. It rewarded mediocrity and even worse than mediocrity. I can’t see how it would be any different today.

      I do agree that the European model would look good on hockey, but I don’t think you can solve a structural problem in North American sports by nibbling at the playoff structure. NHL marketing has turned the Stanley Cup into the only thing. The SC tournament is the greatest in sports. The more they build it up, the less important the regular season becomes.

      If someone threatened to poke me in the eye unless I said something nice about Gary Bettman, I would say, “The expansion under his leadership has been terrible in almost every respect, but at least his plan has made it a lot harder to make the playoffs.”

      • Grabovski
        January 1, 2013 at

        Wait wait, you’re saying the ’88 Leafs, NORRIS DIVISION SEMI-FINALIST, were worse than mediocre?

    7. Randy B.
      January 1, 2013 at

      I think having a “one and done” playoff round is the best idea. If it ends up involving borderline type teams who are just on the cusp of becoming the “next great team” or teams with a whole lot of exciting young talent, a 1 game playoff could be just what the doctor ordered for the NHL. The Oilers would be a great example of this. Us American fans barely ever see them unless our favorite team plays in their division or you’re a freak for everything hockey like me. Yet players like Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Hall are dynamic players that younger fans might identify with and find appealing. The NHL could capitalize on the supposed “next great wave” of young stars by centering the marketing campaign for the 1 game playoff around them. And because it’s only a 1 gamer, it wouldn’t matter that their fan base for the team itself is relatively small in the US.Just show some NBC type highlights of Nugent-Hopkins deeking someone out of their jock to put it top shelf and it’s just as exciting as it would be if it were Crosby doing it. Ditto for other players like Jeff Skinner, Gabriel Landeskog or John Tavares (if the Islanders could ever compete enough to get there). A one or two night showcase for stars like this that “no one in the US knows about” would be a great idea, in my opinion.

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