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.