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 firstname.lastname@example.org