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What is your ideal Stanley Cup playoff format? (PHT Roundtable)

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The big topic of discussion this week in the hockey world was Pierre LeBrun’s article over at The Athletic about NHL general managers being in favor of expanding the Stanley Cup playoff field. Shocking, right? GMs all on board with increasing their chances of getting into the dance, thereby being able to make themselves look better with a playoff appearance on their record.

“More playoff teams [equals] more fan bases with the pleasure of experiencing the playoffs [which equals] more revenue for owners/players to share [which equals] more meaningful games for national rights holders [which equals] more GM/head coaches who can say they made the playoffs and hopefully keep their jobs [less turnover],” one GM told LeBrun.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The NHL went to its current playoff format in 2013 with the top three teams in each division and two wild cards qualifying for the postseason. But there’s been a growing appetite for change.

The PHT staff sat down and discussed our ideal playoff formats, whether the NHL should expand the field and should play-in games be part of the postseason fun.

1. What does your ideal playoff format look like?

SEAN LEAHY: If the distances weren’t so vast in some cases, I’d love to see a straight 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc. format where the conferences do not matter. A Florida-Vancouver first-round matchup wouldn’t be idea travel-wise, so I understand the hesitancy.

I’m fine with going back to the 1 v. 8, 2 v. 7 format within each conference, but taking away the reward of an automatic No. 2 seed for a division winner. Going by the current standings, it’s looking like the Metropolitan Division winner will be the No. 2 seed under the previous playoff format. I would rather the Metro winner grab their true place in the Eastern Conference standings, thereby not punishing someone the Boston Bruins, who will likely finish ahead of that team. The Metro winner would be rewarded with home-ice in Round 1, not a higher seed should that be the case.

You’ll still get interesting matchups in the 1 v. 8, 2 v. 7 format, and once in a while you’ll get a rivalry like a New York-New York, Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, Chicago-St. Louis, LA-Anaheim-San Jose. It also won’t punish teams for playing in a strong division in any given year (Hello, Atlantic!)

JAMES O’BRIEN: The dream is to find the right mix between incentivizing a strong regular season while also opening the door for TV-friendly drama. Why not dominate the sports conversation every now and then, hockey? You might just like it.

So, for one thing, I’d go back to something a lot like the 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. format … except I think it would be fun to let the higher seeds choose their own opponents. Much like Sean’s plan, if you win your division, you guarantee a playoff spot, but no “top-three spot to the team that backed into the worst division title” business. (R.I.P., Southeast Division.)

The most interesting way to tinker is with what it means to be 1 and 8. I’ll expand on the implications for the eighth seed in play-in section, but I’d love to see the top seed in each conference enjoy five games at home instead of four, at least in the first round. With that, you could cut down on travel with a 2-2-3 home games setup, and also give top seeds a greater reward for 82 games of strong play.

Also, a televised event where the higher seeds choose their own opponents, like the SPHL, would be magic, especially if you found a way to force teams not to use cliches in explaining why they chose their opponents. Maybe unearth a celebrity superfan to explain said choices? This wouldn’t ever happen, yet I’d love to see Vince Vaughn talk about why the Blackhawks’ opponent “just isn’t money” or hear whatever Bill Burr would say about the Bruins’ adversary. (Note to self: make sure this event has, like, a one-minute delay to catch salty language.)

Now, if one can really dream: award three standings points for a regulation win, two for a shootout/overtime win (let’s face it, 3-on-3 is an arcade video game too), and one for losing beyond regulation. A regulation loss still gives you nada.

In short: A format more like the 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7 setup before the current brackets, except with the glorious awkwardness of picking your own opponents. The eighth seed being determined by an 8 vs. 9 play-in game. And if all wishes are granted, go with a 3-2-1 standings system.

JOEY ALFIERI: I think it’s time for the best eight teams to slot in wherever they finish in the standings. There’s no need for a division champion to get a one seed automatically. The best eight teams make the playoffs and if two teams from the same division claim the first and seconds seeds so be it.

ADAM GRETZ: I still like the 1 vs. 8 format that reseeds after every round. I think that does the best job — or at least as close to the best as we can get — of achieving the ultimate goal of the playoffs, which is putting the two best teams in the league against one another later in the playoffs. The current format sees good divisions  destroy each other while a team in a lesser division (*ahem* Ottawa) can go on a deep run into the playoffs because it got better matchups along the way. Short of completely revolutionizing the way North American sports are played (and by that I mean doing something drastic, like introduction and promotion and relegation system or something equally radical) I don’t see a better solution.

SCOTT BILLECK: Call me old-fashioned, but I like the idea of the best eight teams from each conference battling it out in a series of best-of-seven affairs. I don’t need wild cards and all of that. If the conference is really good one year, and some good teams miss the playoffs, then so be it. Teams flirting with .500 shouldn’t have a chance to make the playoffs. Give me the best of the best and let them duke it out for hockey’s holy grail.

2. Should the NHL expand the number of teams in the playoffs?

LEAHY: Fifty two percent of NHL currently teams make the playoffs. When Seattle enters the league in a few years, that percentage will drop down a whole two percent. More than enough teams reach Round 1, there’s no reason to dilute the regular season and reward bad general manager’s decisions by allowing 2-4 more teams in every year.

Teams grind it out for 82 games for a chance to be one of the final 16 with a shot at the Stanley Cup. You could even make a case there might be too many teams already in and the ideal number if somewhere between 12-14, thereby allowing for first-round byes for the top teams in each conference.

O’BRIEN: The NHL should not expand the number of teams in the playoffs, but it would be great to see a play-in format of some kind. (Again, see section 3 for the play-in fun.) As much parity talk as there is, shouldn’t a championship hopeful be able to be among the best 16 teams of 31? That doesn’t seem like such an outrageous question to ask. Plus, the playoffs are already about 2.5 months. Make them much longer and we’ll need lockouts just to catch our collective breath.

It would also be outstanding if the league found a way to drum up some way to discourage tanking for the first pick in the draft, although that situation gets messier the more you think about it. Honestly my brain already hurts just imagining how The Aggrieved Fans of Teams Slighted By the Process would gripe about it on social media. *shudders*
Let’s resolve to fix the playoffs first, then get to the draft. Deal?

ALFIERI: No thanks. More than half the league makes the playoffs right now, so if you don’t qualify then you don’t deserve to be in. If you have too many playoff teams, it’ll cheapen the regular season because the daily results won’t mean as much with so many teams qualifying for the playoffs.

GRETZ: Absolutely not. Even if the league expands to 32 teams we’re still taking half of the league to the playoffs. That is enough. And if you add more you are adding to a playoff run that is already long and grueling and demanding (both physically and mentally). Of course general managers and teams are going to be in favor of more playoff teams — it’s their jobs that are on the line for making (or missing) the playoffs.

BILLECK: This should only happen if teams can be added without rewarding mediocrity. Even in a 32-team, 16-per-conference scenario, 50 percent of the teams for each conference make an appearance in the playoffs. Any more than that and you run the risk of allowing teams who don’t deserve to be there into the mix. To me, it requires each team to earn it their playoff spot — there’s the line, go get it.  If you move to nine or 10, it should be because those teams deserve to be there, not because there are a couple more teams in the NHL.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

3. Would you be open to the idea of having play-in games for the final seeds in each conference?

LEAHY: This is certainly a better idea than doing something similar to decide the top pick in the NHL draft. I would be open to this idea only if the league cut down the regular season to somewhere in the 70-game range. Let the No. 7, 8, 9 and 10 teams in each conference play a one-and-done, mini-tournament for the final two seeds with the teams finishing with more points having home-ice. It will bring a little excitement to the period just before Round 1 and give the league and its television partners something to air on what are usually dark nights.

O’BRIEN: Yes. Each conference should feature a single play-in game between the eighth and ninth seeds. Going further with seeds 7-10 or something like that sounds like a barrel-o-fun, yet it would possibly be too unwieldy and disruptive to the season. Let’s say the league tries one play-in game per conference at least to start.

So, picture this: a neutral site with an NHL-ready arena that’s dying for high-level hockey bids for the two games, held during a weekend between the end of the regular season and beginning of playoffs. Call it “The Sudden Death Classic” or something snazzy.
Or the eighth-ranked team could just host the ninth-ranked team, if you’re less ambitious and fun.

ALFIERI: No play-in games, no additional teams making the playoffs. If you’re not one of the top 16 teams in a 31- or 32-team league, you don’t deserve to get in.

The playoffs start in April and finish in June, that’s long enough. We don’t need to add additional games. If you’re the nine seed and the eighth place team collected more points than you over 82 games, that team deserves to get in.

I understand why baseball did it. They had four teams in the playoffs on each side. The NHL doesn’t need to increase the amount of teams making the postseason.

GRETZ: I don’t really like the idea of a play-in game except for maybe one condition: Steal a page from the baseball playbook and if two teams are tied for in the standings for the last playoff spot don’t go by wins, or regulation wins, or anything like that — let them play a one-game tiebreaker. Would anyone go for that? Probably not. But that is just about the only sort of play-in game I want to see in the NHL. The playoffs are best-of-seven. Keep it that way.

BILLECK: OK, I’ll budge. I’m all for traditional means when it comes to the playoffs, but here’s my idea: I’d be open to having a play-in series. Best-of-three. I know, I know – the season is long enough as it is, some will say. But as a fan of the game, the more hockey the better. I don’t think one-off games make sense in hockey. Nothing is decided by those in the playoffs. This isn’t football. So let’s not go down that road. Give teams a best-of-three format for the final spot in each respective conference.

This would mean the eighth and ninth place teams have a three-game showdown to determine the final spot in each conference. To be fair, the eight and ninth place teams aren’t usually too far off from each other, and sometimes the gap between eighth and a top-three spot is razor thin. This allows for an extra mini-series that would be full of excitement. It would also allow for a little extra rest for the teams ahead of them.

Let us know in the comments what kind of playoff format you would like to see.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Penguins won’t have Hornqvist; Flyers lineup murky for Game 5

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If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 tonight, they’ll do so without Patric Hornqvist.

The Swedish winger already missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, and the team ruled him out for Game 5. Hornqvist had been playing quite well lately, including generating a point-per-game (three in as many contests) during this series. He’s also been a pain in the neck, riling up his opponents while amassing 16 penalty minutes in Game 2.

It’s worth noting that Hornqvist scored the Penguins’ last series-clinching goal. He found the net late in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, stunning the Nashville Predators as Pittsburgh repeated as champs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Kessel gets boost with Hornqvist sidelined

The Penguins won Game 4 against the Flyers by a score of 5-0 after rearranging lines.

Hornqvist was lining up with Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, while Phil Kessel climbed to that second-line spot in Game 4 after pairing with Derick Brassard. Brassard’s wingers changed to Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, while Sidney Crosby anchors a line of Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel.

Those configurations worked well, but a desperate Flyers team could provide a different look.

That’s especially true if Sean Couturier can return to the mix for Philly after missing Game 4 himself. The team considers the Selke finalist a game-time decision, while he was seen wearing a knee brace during this morning’s optional skate.

Shuffling with Couturier hurt

The Flyers fiddled around with some interesting combinations with Couturier in doubt. Nolan Patrick centered Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux during much of Wednesday’s loss, while Left Wing Lock indicates that Valtteri Filppula could replace Patrick between Voracek and Giroux if Couturier is out.

Couturier playing or sitting is pivotal, as he’s been carrying a huge workload for Philly. That was especially true in Games 2 (27:15 minutes of ice time) and Game 3 (26:18), when Couturier logged big minutes. He also benefited the Flyers from a balance standpoint, as they were able to place Giroux and Voracek on different lines at even-strength with Couturier available.

That’s not the only big question mark for the Flyers (and perhaps for the Penguins’ hopes of prepping for the Flyers). Head coach Dave Hakstol didn’t name the starting goalie for Game 5, generating speculation that Michal Neuvirth may step in for Brian Elliott.

For all we know, the Flyers are aware of their starting goalie situation, along with Couturier’s status, but we might need to wait to actually find out. Then again, when you consider Patrice Bergeron‘s late scratch for the Bruins in Game 4 of their series, it could indeed be a coin flip for Couturier, too.

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Game 5 airs on NBCSN tonight, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals lose Burakovsky for rest of Blue Jackets series

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Capitals coach Barry Trotz shared bad news with reporters (including the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan): Andre Burakovsky will miss at least the remainder of the series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Burakovsky required “minor surgery” for an upper-body injury suffered thanks to a Boone Jenner hit during Game 2 of the first-round series. (Game 4 took place last night, with the Capitals tying things up 2-2.)

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

NBC Sports Washington shared footage of Jenner’s hit on Burakovsky in GIF form:

On the bright side, the Capitals aren’t ruling out the possibility of Burakovsky returning during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, at least if they can advance beyond this first-round series against Columbus. Khurshudyan noted that Trotz said Burakovsky will be out at least through April 25, but the full window of recovery seems hazy.

This marks another daunting setback for Burakovsky, a 23-year-old who hasn’t had much injury luck lately. He only played in 56 games this season and 64 in 2016-17, totaling 25 points each time. It’s a bummer to see him not be able to take the next step after scoring 17 goals and 38 points in 2015-16, particularly since Burakovsky consistently churns out strong possession stats.

Trotz spoke of Burakovsky’s bad luck shortly after Game 2:

“For [Burakovsky], it’s frustrating,” Trotz said, via NBC Sports Washington’s Tarik El-Bashir. “Our mentality is the next guy up. Next guy up will be Jakub Vrana. I feel bad for Andre because everything for a young player is about getting confidence and building on that. So, every time he’s played very, very well he’s had some injuries. This is a setback but he’ll come back strong.”

Burakovsky had been lining up with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie during the Blue Jackets series. In his absence, Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson have been getting looks with Backstrom and Oshie. With Oshie also banged up right now, it certainly stings to realize that Burakovsky won’t be back for what’s been a difficult series, even though the Capitals deserve credit for hogging the biscuit lately despite being without one of their best puck-hoarders.

Game 5 shifts back to Washington on NBC/NBCSN on Saturday. Puck drop is slated for 3 p.m. ET. Here is the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Players claimed off NHL waivers making most of 2nd chances

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DENVER (AP) — Colorado defenseman Patrik Nemeth set career highs this season in goals, games and perhaps even grudges.

See what a little chip on the shoulder can do?

Waived by Dallas in October, he was claimed by Colorado soon after and has played an integral role in helping the Avalanche return to the postseason. He’s not alone: These playoffs are filled with castoffs who were put on waivers, only to find a revamped role with a new team.

It’s not personal. It’s just business. Players realize this. But still, being waived goodbye is hard to swallow.

”Of course you want to prove them wrong,” said Nemeth, whose team trails 3-1 heading to Nashville for Game 5 on Friday night. ”You want to prove you can play and that they were wrong. That’s always going to be in the back of your head – at least for me.”

When Avs defenseman Mark Barberio was cut by Montreal last year, so many thoughts swirled through his head: What went wrong? Next stop, the minors? Is there still even a role for him in the league?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It was a whirlwind 24 hours – the amount of time teams have to make a claim – before the Avs picked him up.

”Colorado saw something in me and decided to give me a chance,” Barberio said. ”I’ve gotten a chance to play regular minutes, and a coaching staff I feel believes in me. I’m trying to repay that faith every time I play.”

That sort of feeling is shared by center Ryan Carpenter, who was claimed by Vegas from Anaheim on Dec. 13. He’s now heading to the second round with the expansion Golden Knights. Carpenter had a key assist in a Game 3 win over Los Angeles.

”It’s amazing … how things can change in pro hockey,” Carpenter said on the team’s website. ”I feel like a little kid right now playing in playoffs. It’s exciting and we want to keep this thing going. It’s nice when you feel like you’re contributing. I never would’ve though in the middle of December I’d be playing right now.”

Minnesota defenseman Nate Prosser was in a similar boat. He was claimed after St. Louis put him on waivers in late November, returning the nine-year NHL veteran to his home-state team for another stint. The Wild previously claimed Prosser off waivers from St. Louis on Oct. 2, 2014, after he had signed with the Blues that summer but was let go just before the season.

A reliable defenseman, he has taken on added responsibility after an injury to Ryan Suter.

”It puts the onus on the rest of us to amp up our game a little bit,” Prosser said. ”Just different parts of the game we’ve got to make sure we’re honing in on.”

Then there’s Stefan Noesen, who’s had quite a path to wind up with the New Jersey Devils. Drafted by Ottawa in the first round in 2011 and traded to Anaheim in ’13, he was claimed by the Devils on Jan. 25, 2017. He had his first playoff goal in Game 3 against Tampa Bay.

”Just because you get put on waivers doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t play,” Nemeth said. ”Sometimes the situation is the way it is and you need a new opportunity.”

That was the case for Nemeth, a second-round pick by Dallas in 2010. He played in a career-high 68 games for Colorado, with three goals, 12 assists and a plus-27 rating, which was the highest by an Avalanche defenseman since Adam Foote in 2002-03 – the benefits of a change in scenery.

”It could be different scenarios,” Nemeth said of factors leading to being placed on waivers. ”Sometimes, it’s just too many guys. Sometimes, your coach might not like you or might not appreciate what you bring to the table. It’s just different, depending on what situation you’re in. For me personally, it was good.”

Avalanche defenseman Duncan Siemens went through the experience last fall – with his own team. He was reassigned to San Antonio in the American Hockey League before spending the last seven weeks with Colorado. He made his playoff debut in the Predators series.

”This is such a competitive league,” said Siemens, a first-round pick by Colorado in 2011. ”There are so many good hockey players out there. Your first chance could be your last chance. Anytime you get an opportunity, you have to make the most of it because you don’t know if you’re going to get another one.”

AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.

More AP hockey: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey

Bill Peters opts out of contract to leave Hurricanes; next stop Calgary?

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Bill Peters had until Friday to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract, freeing him from the final year of his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. He did just that, and will now hit the open market with the Calgary Flames a heavy favorite for his next landing spot.

“I have a lot of respect for Bill as a person and coach,” said Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in a statement. “We thank him for his time with the Hurricanes and wish him success in whatever comes next.”

With $1.6 million guaranteed for next season if he stayed in Carolina, Peters wouldn’t be leaving without having a good idea that he’ll be able to step into another job this off-season. At the moment, there are head coaching openings with the Flames, Dallas Stars and New York Rangers.

Dundon wasn’t against Peters staying for the duration of his contract, as he’s shown he prefers keeping people around who have term left rather than firing them (Hi, Ron Francis!). But with Peters resigning, the Hurricanes are off the hook now for that $1.6 million.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

So where will Peters land? Well, the Flames have been the big favorite for a while, and the rumor mill sped up on Tuesday when Calgary decided to fire Glen Gulutzan after two seasons. General manager Brad Treliving said he wanted someone with NHL experience as a replacement and Peters would come to Alberta with a 137-138-53 record in four seasons with the Hurricanes, which includes zero playoff appearances.

It’s easy to tie Peters to the Calgary job. He’s from the area, worked with Treliving during the 2016 World Championships and got his start coaching in the Western Hockey League. It seems like it’s only a matter of time now.

As for the Hurricanes, they now have openings at GM and head coach. Team president Don Waddell is acting as interim GM during the search process. Rod Brind’Amour, who was one of Peters’ assistants, has seen his name out there as a potential replacement, same for the team’s assistant GM and AHL head coach Mike Vellucci. Both would come cheaper than what Alain Vigneault, Dave Tippett, Dan Bylsma or potentially Barry Trotz would command, so given Dundon’s methods so far, that just might be the direction they go.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.