As the other “big four” North American sports increase the size of their playoff fields, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is holding on to his belief that 16 Stanley Cup playoff teams is enough.
Speaking in Edmonton on Wednesday ahead of Game 2 of Kings-Oilers, Bettman did not waver from an opinion he’s held for many, many years.
More teams in the playoffs? Not on his watch.
“The reason this is as good as it is is because the regular season and playoffs are meaningful,” said Bettman. “Having half of our teams eligible I think is the right balance, I think it creates great competition throughout the regular season. It makes the games most meaningful and there’s nothing like our playoff tournament, the Stanley Cup is the hardest to win, and there’s nothing in any sport like our first round.”
Every year there is the debate about whether the NHL should expand the number of playoff teams — even as Major League Baseball, the NBA, and NFL have done so. But there’s no driving interest from the league-side of things or, from the sounds of it, the players either.
Unless there is a groundswell of support, Bettman’s not changing his mind. He told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun in 2018 that an increase in playoff teams would “dilute” the regular season and, as he brings up regularly, “eliminates, exciting regular-season races.”
LeBrun then polled the league’s general managers at the time and — get this — majority of them were in favor of expanding the playoff field. Crazy, right? Those whose jobs depend on postseason appearances would like to increase their chances of making it? Who could have seen that coming?
Half of the NHL’s teams now make the playoffs. But would increasing the field slightly eliminate such exciting regular-season races? Play-in games would be like the Qualifying Round from the 2020 bubble postseason. If you don’t want to risk your entire season on a set of pre-playoff elimination games, well, that should motivate you to finish in a safe spot, no?
This topic isn’t going away and we’re going to regularly read and hear about it as we try to figure out ways to remain engaged at the end of the regular season in years where there may not be playoff races (see: 2021-22 Eastern Conference). But there clearly won’t be any movement on this issue — even if there’s large support within the game — until Bettman has moved on from his role as Commissioner.
“I love the fact that people are so passionate about the game that there’s always a debate about what we can change,” Bettman said, “but change for the sake of change, or change because somebody else is doing it differently, under the right circumstance can make sense, but for us right now, we like where we are. We think the game’s in really good shape.”