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.

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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.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”