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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.

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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.

Predators decide Tolvanen still isn’t ready for NHL

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The Nashville Predators made some roster cuts on Sunday, with one being a little bit surprising: Eeli Tolvanen.

This doesn’t send a signal to panic, but it is a little frustrating to see the stilted development of the 20-year-old forward, who was the 30th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

For much of 2017-18, Tolvanen made highlight-reel plays in Finland that led people to believe that the Predators pulled off a big steal. That momentum was seemingly halted late in that season, however, as he received limited use in three regular-season games with the Predators. Still, hopes were high for the then-rookie winger.

To Tolvanen’s credit, he didn’t explore a potential out-clause as he stagnated in the AHL last season. Apparently that didn’t earn him enough cool points with the Predators to get him a longer look during this training camp, though.

To be fair to the Predators, they might just want to see more out of Tolvanen before pulling the trigger on a longer NHL look. He was fine in the AHL last season (15 goals and 35 points in 58 games with the Milwaukee Admirals), but not quite mind-blowing enough to kick the door down.

That said, it was a little frustrating to see a lack of experimentation from Predators head coach Peter Laviolette last season. Personally, I felt like Tolvanen was worth a try on a power play unit that was absolutely awful; the 2018-19 rendition of the Predators didn’t have a ton of players with a shot on par with what Tolvanen can unleash.

With Matt Duchene‘s shot added as an option on the power play, it might have been tougher to squeeze Tolvanen into the mix, although his abilities make you believe that it was worth more of a try.

It remains a little baffling that the Predators are sending Tolvanen down so early, although his waive exempt status plays a role in the decision.

A player like Tolvanen can sometimes provide that extra spark — and some extra easy goals — that can help you win a few extra games, or maybe even break open a tight playoff game. Of course, Laviolette might contest that he’s still at a point in his career where he’d make a mistake that would instead open up such opportunities for the Predators’ opponents.

Tolvanen could easily resurface for the Predators during the 2019-20 season, and maybe do so more than once. It’s nonetheless difficult to fight a bit of impatience when he’s down in the AHL, especially if it means he’s losing opportunities to one or more of Frederick Gaudreau or Miikka Salomaki.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Better after an impressive offseason.

Getting to match what’s basically a team-friendly offer sheet for Sebastian Aho was a nice start, but the dirt-cheap Jake Gardiner signing capped quite a run of savvy moves. While Gardiner makes them even richer on defense, they have a more varied offense after adding Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel to the mix.

Strengths: If the Hurricanes don’t have the best defense in the NHL, they’re absolutely in the top five, and their group might be the deepest. It’s possible that Gardiner may help them boost a middling power play, and all of that defensive depth could allow management to make a trade down the line.

Their offense is looking considerably more impressive on paper, especially if they acknowledge the obvious and truly unleash Andrei Svechnikov next season.

Carolina figures to be a five-on-five beast once again.

Weaknesses: Petr Mrazek put together a strong finish to last season, but goaltending remains an issue. It’s unclear what James Reimer has left to offer, although he was once an analytics darling.

It’s plausible that the power play may remain hit-or-miss, as the Hurricanes might lack at least a tiny bit in that true superstar finishing ability.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It seemed like Rod Brind’Amour was a pretty nifty fit in Carolina in his first season as a head coach, keeping an even keel through some early season bumps, and allowing his team to loosen up with the “Storm Surge.” This franchise doesn’t want to go right back to missing the playoffs after breaking their last drought, but even in that situation, “Rod the Bod” seems fairly safe. Let’s put him at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mrazek, Martin Necas, Justin Faulk

Mrazek breathed life into his NHL career by playing well enough down the stretch to convince Carolina to stick with him via a new contract. He still has quite a bit to prove. If you cannot succeed behind this defense, then you don’t have a lot of excuses.

Necas seems like he’s on the verge of a full-time leap to the NHL, yet the Hurricanes don’t necessarily have a ton of room to carry a player if it’s evident that he can’t hang at this level in 2019-20. Getting another burst of high-end skill could really move the needle for Carolina, though.

Will Faulk stick with the Hurricanes through this season (and maybe even beyond), being that he’s entering a contract year? Could he even be traded before the upcoming campaign begins? It sounds like it was close to happening before, and should be a situation to watch until we get some resolution.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Metropolitan Division is a bit of a mystery, what with the Blue Jackets suffering huge losses while the Devils and Rangers made big strides forward. It sure seems like there’s a lane for the Hurricanes to make the playoffs pretty comfortably, and their superior depth might just put them in a cozy position to win the division.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

The Golden Knights cringed under a cap crunch during this offseason, losing intriguing KHL import Nikita Gusev, valuable scorer Erik Haula, and underrated defenseman Colin Miller while getting table scraps in return.

Luckily, the Golden Knights have been feasting lately, as Mark Stone is really only getting started after being a late addition around the 2018-19 trade deadline.

Strengths: The Golden Knights’ forward group is remarkable. Stone basically elevates Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to the equivalent of a top line, and Vegas already had one (or, at worst, a strong “1B”) in Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also have a top-six-quality winger in Alex Tuch if someone goes cold or gets hurt. Few teams can match that group, and it remains resounding that Vegas built this group up so quickly.

Bonus points if Cody Glass ends up making the team and getting meaningful minutes.

When he’s hot, Marc-Andre Fleury can still steal games for his team.

Weaknesses: It sure feels like the Golden Knights are rolling the dice a bit in net, though. Fleury turns 35 on Nov. 28, and their backup options leave a lot to be desired. That netminder situation sometimes resembles a wobbly Jenga tower.

While I like Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, and believe the latter may have “another gear,” it’s fair to wonder if the Golden Knights’ defense is a stride or two behind the NHL’s best. They’ve done well to craft a pretty good defense in a short time, but that group isn’t as impressive as their forwards.

Gerard Gallant has made some magic, but like with any NHL head coach, he has his quirks. If he indulges in leaning too much on Fleury, Ryan Reaves, and Deryk Engelland, it could be to the Golden Knights’ detriment.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Gallant won the Jack Adams in 2017-18, and has managed to bring Vegas to two playoff berths in as many seasons. About the only glaring criticism you can muster (beyond those smaller aforementioned quirks) is that maybe — just maybe — Gallant could have done more to settle his team down after Cody Eakin drew that notorious major penalty in Game 7 against the Sharks.

Overall, Gallant is pretty safe, although the Golden Knights aren’t shy about spending, so they expect to be a contender. Let’s put Gallant at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Theodore, Glass, and Stone.

Theodore had a cancer scare a few months ago, and thankfully, it sounds like he took care of that matter. Here’s hoping that he’s 100 percent to start the season, because he’s a blast to watch.

Glass is intriguing as a prospect who could, ideally, give Vegas another weapon — if he makes the team.

After a tumultuous final season with the Senators and trade to Vegas, Stone gets to settle in. This could be a good time for those in the hockey world who didn’t already know it to clue into something: he’s probably even better than he’s hyped up to be.

Playoffs or Lottery: With a weak Pacific Division in mind, the Golden Knights should be focused on winning a Stanley Cup, not merely making the playoffs.

It’s strange to say this so early in the team’s existence, but a trip to the lottery would be as disastrous as owing an old mob casino a bunch of money.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: They are definitely better, it is just a question of how much better and if it is enough to matter. Hopefully a full season from Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson having a year of experience under his belt, the arrival of Quinn Hughes, and the offseason additions of J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers all add something to the team. Trading a future first-round pick for Miller is a risk, and Myers’ deal is yet another bizarre long-term contract for a veteran that isn’t a core player, but they are short-term upgrades. Whether that gets them closer to being a playoff team remains to be seen, and it all kind of makes you question what the long-term plan actually is.

Strengths: For all of their flaws, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent they should be able to build around assuming they don’t screw it up. They have had Calder Trophy contenders in each of the past two seasons (Boeser and Pettersson, the latter of which won it) and could have another one this season (Hughes).

Weaknesses: They lack quality depth at forward, they have holes on defense, the goaltending is probably average, and for a team that has been one of the worst in the league for the past four years and does not have a single player making more than $6 million per season they are somehow completely capped out and have no wiggle room to work with financially. They invested too much money and too many years in veteran, declining depth players and just don’t have enough around their top young players to seriously compete for a playoff spot. That all points to their biggest overall weakness: The front office.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Travis Green has been the Canucks’ coach for two non-playoff seasons, but what does that mean? Do we know what kind of coach he is? What exactly has he had to work with here? Still, any time a coach is looking at the potential for a third consecutive non-playoff season you have to think their seat is at least a little warm. We will put him at a 7 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Thatcher Demko.

Pettersson is fascinating simply because he is the team’s best, and most exciting player and it is going to be interesting to see what he does in year two. His rookie season was great, but he cooled off considerably after the first month of the season when it came to scoring goals, and a lot of his goal-scoring success was the result of an incredibly high shooting percentage. Can he sustain that?

Hughes is an important player for the Canucks because they really need him to be an impact player simply due to the position he plays. They need someone on defense that can be a young, top-pairing defender and he definitely has that sort of potential. There are certainly going to be growing pains for him as a rookie, but the potential for stardom is absolutely there.

Jacob Markstrom has been pretty solid the past two years as the team’s starting goalie under less than ideal circumstances, but is he a long-term solution in net? He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and an already cap-strapped team has a big decision to make. That is where Demko comes in because he could be a long-term solution. Markstrom has earned the right to open the season as the starter, but Demko’s play when he gets his opportunities could create an opportunity for the Canucks to move Markstrom and turn the net over to their potential long-term goalie.

Playoffs or lottery: Even with their impressive young talent this is still not a playoff team. They are also not a team that is going to be bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves them in that messy middle ground that is really difficult to get out of.

MORE:
Boeser gets three-year bridge deal with Canucks
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.