On Tuesday, Satchel Price of SBNation-NHL wrote an article discussing how the Southern Professional Hockey League’s new and experimental playoff format could benefit the NHL. The article can be found here, but for those who don’t have time to read the whole thing, the format is that the first, then second, and then third seed in this eight-team playoff get to pick their opponent from the fifth- through eighth-ranked teams, with the fourth place team getting the team that doesn’t get picked.
The idea behind the NHL adopting the format is that it would add some strategy on teams’ parts in determining the playoff berths, would strengthen rivalries by having repeat high-seeds pick the same team year after year, and inject some much-needed drama and stakes into the latter portion of the season as teams would try that much harder for the priority choice rather than take their feet off the gas in order to conserve energy for the postseason. Those are all good reasons to adopt this format, but as an exercise, why not explore potential downsides?
We Want Rivalries, But For the Right Reasons
An argument in favour of a pick-your-opponent format is that it would create and strengthen rivalries. I suppose the idea is that a team could consistently finish in the top-half of their conference year after year, and pick the same opponent every time, the higher team revelling in picking on the same team and the lower team developing a chip on its collective shoulder in response to said pettiness.
The NHL has tried to sell the current format, which has the top team in a division play a wild card and the other two divisional qualifiers play each other, on the basis of the rivalries it creates. The issue here is that any rivalry that happens is a contrivance first. Teams that face each other repeatedly, especially in the heightened atmosphere postseason, do become rivals, but the basis for the most fondly-remembered ones wasn’t the mere fact that they repeatedly played each other, it’s the fact that they were basically gatekeepers for the team they were rivals with. Rather than face each other in the first or second round by the league’s design, they’d face each other in the second or third round because they were so good they were the only teams who could get that far. Think of some of the biggest rivalries of recent years: the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings in the late 90s, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks in the late 2000s and early 2010s, or even, in a way, Detroit and Pittsburgh at the end of the 2000s. The thing that made these rivalries special was that there was little helping these rivalries form that didn’t relate to the teams themselves. It wasn’t because of a heavily divisional regular season schedule or a playoff format forcing them to constantly play each other in the quarterfinals that they became rivals, it was because they were the best teams and repeatedly played each other late in the playoffs.
I will not deny that a “pick-your-opponent” format would be much more compelling than the NHL’s attempt to fabricate rivalries within divisions, and the basis for any rivalries created would be based on legitimate animosity between teams rather than by the league’s design, but there are two problems with this. Firstly, it doesn’t solve the problem of less compelling Conference Finals, as the big rivalry battles would still end early in the playoffs leaving two teams playing for a spot in the Championship who have nothing to do with each other. Secondly, the basis for a rivalry would likely be Team A winning the conference every year and picking the same team each time, in theory angering the team repeatedly getting picked. It’s still not as good way to generate rivalries as having top teams repeatedly face each other in late playoff rounds.
Could Such a Format Create a Balance Issue?
At first glance, it would seem as the playoff seeds are in order of best team to worst, but we all know that’s not strictly the case. A strong or weak start or finish could result in a team finishing higher or lower than they should given how good the team is. A team that just gets into the playoffs could be there because they underachieved, or a team that almost gets home-ice advantage could have overachieved. Sure, it’s fair to reward teams for playing well, and something that provides extra incentive to shoot for a high regular season standing, which isn’t normally something that matters to most teams, would be welcome in the dying weeks of the regular season, but do we want to punish teams that don’t get home-ice advantage? Would we want, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins, fresh off a second straight Stanley Cup and shooting for a third straight, to be able to add to their advantage in the first round by being able to pick a higher-ranked, but weaker team? Perhaps that’s not worth it.
Note That It’s the NHL We’re Talking About Here
The thing with fresh, experimental ideas is that the person thinking them up and the people who take to the idea want it to become common and expected. While an idea being adopted by a league as big as the National Hockey League would undoubtedly make an idea common for some time, nothing kills an idea faster than poor execution. Remember that the NHL is currently, while talking about ways to increase the number of goals scored per game and in a season, is also dragging its heels on changes to goaltender equipment that are likely to just be ineffectual pretend changes anyway, because change isn’t “traditional”. They have a team that banned players giving each other low fives, and then made an ill-advised trade involving one of the players that did it just to get him out of town, because such displays of individual personalities aren’t “traditional”. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the Stanley Cup Champions, visited the White House, making a political statement whether they wanted to or not, hiding behind the front of honouring “tradition”. Anything different is stamped out and smothered because it doesn’t fall in line with a century of tradition. Let’s say the NHL adopts a “pick your opponent” for next season. Would it be at all surprising to see the NHL teams just pick their opponents based on the existing format, like the first-placed team in the Eastern Conference picking its second Wild Card or the eighth-place in the Conference because that’s the way it’s been done in the past. That would put an end to the “pick-your-opponent” idea in all of professional hockey, and possibly make it less likely for people to seriously think of other ideas to change hockey. Some people want the NHL to adopt a Conference-based playoff to let real rivalries bloom based on competitiveness and mutual hatred. Some people want a 3-2-1-0 or 2-2-0-0 regular season scoring system that emphasizes regulation victories or takes away the benefit of making it to overtime. Some people want the goalie nets to be bigger in order to increase the number of goals scored. Some people want the NHL to take the final step to snuff out fighting and shed its association with violence. If the NHL adopts some wacky idea, and then does everything in its power to pretend they didn’t, the idea will fail and its failure will be used as an argument against any of these or other reasonable ideas being implemented.
I think having a format that allows strong finishers to choose who they end up facing at the start of the playoffs is an interesting idea, and I even think it would pretty cool if the NHL were to implement this format for their playoffs, at least initially, but I think it shouldn’t be done.
The playoff format needs to change, sure, but I think a more satisfying change would be a return to a Conference-based format that allows rivalries to form organically through repeated mid-to-late-round match-ups between teams strong enough to repeatedly break out of the first round, rather than repeated first-round match-ups for their own sake.
Home-ice advantage is enough incentive for higher-ranked teams in the latter part of the season, while playing a more manageable team is enough incentive for a lower-ranked team to make that extra late-season push. The NHL would do well to implement other ideas into the NHL, and an admittedly gimmicky element the NHL would be too conservative to use to its fullest would only make it much harder for other unconventional, but less extreme and far more beneficial, changes to gain traction.
Let’s save this fringe experiment for an obscure league that has less to lose by implementing it, and keep the NHL’s focus on lasting changes for the good of the league.