The cases for, against permanently expanding the NHL playoffs


Alarm. Breakfast. Hockey. Dinner. Sleep. Repeat.

This is the life cycle in the NHL’s restarted season, for the 24 teams involved in the two hub cities and the bleary-eyed fans watching from home. It’s like a housebound hockey Coachella — a “Couch-ella,” if you will — as the made-for-TV tournament runs all day, every day. Sometimes we’ve wonder if there can be too much hockey. This week has provided the answer: Actually, there are plenty more hours in the day to cram in a few more games.

It has been fun. Very fun. Maybe we should do it again?

“So you’re asking if we should keep the format? Like, allow 24 teams in, and then go from there and have a play-in round?” asked Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole.

His tone was incredulous. While no NHL player would even wish for this comparison, it was the same tone commissioner Gary Bettman has when he discusses playoff expansion.

“There are a couple of people that have their own thoughts. But I have no interest, and I don’t have any interest in changing formats,” Bettman said back in 2018. “I know it’s getting reported. It’s not getting widespread support. It’s not getting widespread attention. We like what we have. We think it’s working very well, and I’m not a fan of diluting the regular season, which has incredible races that go down to the wire, by adding more teams.”

Bettman sees the expanded postseason in 2020 as a necessity. Officially, because teams around the playoff bubble didn’t get a chance to play out the season and potentially qualify for the playoffs. Realistically, because roping in 24 franchises — including cash cows Chicago and Montreal — would better justify the cost of restarting the season.

But he views this as a one-time playoff expansion, and not a test case for a change in the NHL’s postseason format. Which is a shame, because there are debates to be had about permanently adopting some of the aspects of this postseason tournament.

So let’s have them.

Debate: The NHL should expand the playoffs beyond 16 teams

Pro: When Seattle enters the NHL in 2021-22, the league will grow to 32 teams, meaning half the league will miss the playoffs each season. As the league has expanded, the postseason has not. In 1990-91, the season before the San Jose Sharks began the modern expansion cycle, 16 out of 21 teams qualified for the playoffs. Perhaps I was too young to realize it at the time, but it felt normal. Still does. You know what doesn’t? Leaving half the league out of the playoffs.

But just like the expanded playoffs this summer, it’s all about the revenue. Expand the field, increase the revenue, from extra home games to extra sponsorship to additional content to sell in a broadcast rights package. It’s no secret that the NHL’s bottom line will be impacted by COVID-19 next season and then could be in subsequent seasons. Maximizing revenue streams is essential. As is creating new ones, like an extra round of the playoffs.

Con: We’d like to call Ian Cole to the stand.

“There are 82 games. If you can’t make yourself a playoff team after 82 games, quite frankly you don’t deserve to be there. Maybe that’s harsh,” he said. “Obviously we’re in a different situation here. But adding another round, adding another two weeks or two and a half weeks to an already two-and-a-half month long playoff, I don’t know how much sense that makes for me.”

These are the primary arguments against expansion of the playoffs: That the season is too long as it is, and that the only worthiest teams are getting the invite currently. To add more would water it down. Extra revenue is great. But not at the expense of what’s already a spectacular and satisfying tournament.

Debate: The NHL should bring back the round-robin and qualification round

Pro: Again, this festival of hockey has been incredible. It truly is the NHL’s version of March Madness. The qualification round is the perfect appetizer for the main course of the Round of 16. It’s true that the round-robin games have been somewhat inconsistent in quality. But this new opening round is a thrilling way to set the table for the rest of the tournament — and for those worried about extending the season to painful lengths, the whole thing will be wrapped up in eight days.

But if this round isn’t your (Stanley) cup of tea, what about keeping the qualification round and the round robin, but separating them?

Travis Yost of TSN suggested “a single or double elimination tournament to start the season in lieu of an utterly meaningless preseason.” That’s not a bad idea: Perhaps make that the ultimate regular-season tie-breaker among teams in the same division .

As for the qualification round, the answer’s obvious: Expand the playoffs by two teams in each conference. Have the No. 7 seed play the No. 10 seed and the No. 8 seed play the No. 9 seed. Make it a play-in game or a short play-in series, and the winners earn the last two seeds in each conference for the traditional Round of 16, which should not have its integrity compromised.

Con: The round-robin has been “inconsistent in quality?” Try “glorified scrimmages.” And costly ones at that: The Boston Bruins just had a 100-point season invalidated in two losses. As if the NHL regular season needed more devaluing.

As Bettman has indicated, these rounds were essential only for this unprecedented season. Otherwise, a full 82 games is good enough to determine the eight best teams in each conference to advance to the postseason. The playoff races to get there are thrilling under the current format because playoff spots are in short order. When everyone’s super, no one will be. You know who said that? Syndrome from “The Incredibles.” You know, a villain.

Debate: The NHL should go to five-game series in the first round



Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear accidentally deflects the puck into his own goal in the final minutes of the game to give the Blackhawks a 4-3 win.

Pro: Sometimes you want a rock opera and sometimes you want a short blast of pure punk. The latter is what we get with a five-game series. Little margin for error. Huge stakes. A war of attrition shrunken down to a concentrated battle.

Five-game series were fine back in the 1980s. In fact, the Islanders won one in each year of their dynasty. No one has ever used this to invalidate that accomplishment. (OK, maybe a Rangers fan did one time, we assume.) Plus, for all of these complaints about the length of the postseason, going with five-game first-round series means that in a typical season we might not have to play until mid-June.

Con: You’re worried about mid-June? We’re playing hockey in August. The five-game series means less revenue and a greater chance that a championship-caliber team is eliminated in a fluke. There’s nothing wrong with seven-game series for four rounds. That’s not us talking. That’s Calgary Flames coach Geoff Ward.

“No, I don’t think they should [change the format],” he said. “I like the format with all series being best-of-seven, for a variety of different reasons. I do have experience playing in shorter series. The best-of-five is not new. I has a few different wrinkles than the best-of-seven, but I enjoy the format the way that it is. I think the NHL should stay with that.”

Debate: The NHL should continue to re-bracket after each round

Pro: When the NHL went to the wild card format, it ditched re-bracketing the playoffs after the first round in favor of a bracket in each division. This was intended to force more rivalry series, because these are one of the few things the NHL has consistently known how to market, and to cement a bracket that fans and bettors could predictably follow to its conclusion, a la the aforementioned March Madness of the NCAA basketball tournament.

So … how many NHL pools have been passed around your office in years past? None?

The re-bracketing adds value to the regular season by allowing the high remaining seeds the chance to play the “weakest” opponents available. The best teams get little advantage in the postseason; this would make the previous 82 games more meaningful.

Plus it’s fun. Bettman’s argument that the scramble for the wild card works because there are so many different possibilities also applies here when there’s a re-bracket. We’ll take unpredictability over a rigid postseason tournament every time. Because what are the playoffs if not unpredictable?

Con: Yeah, we’ve got nothing. Bracketing stinks. They should totally adopt this. The defense rests … and begins watching another full day of playoff hockey.

Jersey fouls

Not a jersey this week, but a shirt the NHL is selling through its official store for the playoffs. These nickname shirts are available for other teams: The Lightning got “Defend The Bay” and the Bruins got “Defend The Hub” and so on. Carolina got “Defend The Coast,” due to the beautiful beaches of [checks notes] Raleigh, North Carolina.

But this Vegas Golden Knights one is just hilarious, because you can feel the intense workshopping that went into it. Sin City? The Strip? Lost Wages? The Marriage Capital of the World? No, let’s just go with the entirely made-up nickname “Neon City” and avoid the strongly worded letters sent in protest of the blasphemous (but actually real) monikers.

Three questions answered from the bubble

1. Are the hotels as awkward as expected?

Somewhat. Hotel X is the Toronto hotel that’s housing a few teams with no love lost among them: the Flyers, Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Penguins. Scott Laughton of the Flyers said last week, “I think everyone’s kind of on their own schedule and different practice times and stuff, so haven’t been seeing much of the other guys. I’m sure once playoffs ramp up, I don’t think there will be many hellos.” Tom Wilson of the Capitals said, “You see guys that you’ve done battle with. You’ve seen guys that you’ve played with. It’s definitely strange but it’s fun at the same time.”

In Edmonton, Alberta, the Canucks and Wild are first-round opponents who are in the same hotel. Minnesota’s Jordan Greenway said, “It’ll be a little awkward if we’ve got an elevator full of Vancouver guys. I don’t know if I’m going to be getting in it.” His teammate Zach Parise predicted, “I don’t see anything carrying over to the lobby or anything. Sometimes playoff series, the further it goes, you develop a pretty good hatred toward the opposition. So to see them, it’ll just be a little different seeing them in the hotel and whatnot. I don’t think you’re going to get in an argument with anyone about a game in the hotel by any means.”

2. How does the NHL get pucks back that go out of play?

There are no lucky fans in the stands catching pucks that go out of play, which means the NHL can retrieve the discs and reuse them. How? With this man, the dude with the pool skimmer, which apparently isn’t just for removing dead bugs from your in-ground.

3. Have the gamers finally won?

For the past couple of years, there’s been a battle between NHL gamers and the old men shaking fists at clouds about the young ‘uns lugging around their Xstations and Playboxes on the road. But the old men have lost. Gaming has taken over the bubbles. As James Neal of the Edmonton Oilers told The Players Tribune:

“The gaming here … I don’t even know what to say. There are guys who’ve brought every single piece of gaming equipment they own: double monitors, PC rigs, you name it. If you took it away, they’d be lost. All they do is play Call of Duty or Fortnite, or whatever, for hours. It’s how they spend their free time, since we can’t leave the hotel or go into anyone’s room — except I don’t even think they’d want to, because that would screw up their gaming. And they’re all talking — no, sorry, yelling — on their mics. I can hear them through the walls. Total insanity.”

Listen To ESPN On Ice

We react to the first few days of qualifying-round action. Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars talks about the uniqueness of the round-robin (13:46). He also discusses the player protests that took place before the Stars’ game against the Golden Knights. Isaac Bogoch, National Hockey League Players’ Association medical advisor, explains the safety measures being taken in Edmonton and Toronto, and why the bubble concept has been so successful so far (31:51). Plus, Steve Simmons wasn’t the focus of “Phil Kessel Loves Hot Dogs,” but don’t worry, he made the show during Puck Headlines. Listen, subscribe, rate and review here!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Riley the dog

Ah, the unexpected challenges in Zoom journalism. Diana Nearhos of the Tampa Bay Times was asking Lightning coach Jon Cooper a question when her pooch started barking, which led to a momentary giggle fit for Cooper. “Is that how I have to respond?” he asked. She apologized and restated her question. “I’ll be honest,” said Cooper, laughing, “I can’t get over the dog.” Eventually the question was answered. At least the one Nearhos was asking.

Loser: Connor McDavid‘s focus

McDavid is the best player in the world because he does things with the puck at full stride that few players in history could do, and because he has a singular focus on being that good. But that focus cuts both ways: It makes him a ferocious competitor, but also makes him complain when a staffer runs down to the ice to throw hats on it because there are no fans in Edmonton to do so after his third goal. And it also makes him say things like, “The hats were unnecessary.” So while we respect its role in making Connor the best … pipe down, singular focus. Let the lady throw the hats.

Winner: Fist-bump lines

It’s no secret that I loathe the post-series handshake line or really anything that celebrates the “gentlemanly” aspects of hockey, thus detracting from the kayfabe animosity between the players. (Like that glorified paperweight, the Lady Byng Trophy.) But if we’re going to have “good game” congratulations between the teams, the gloved fist bump is so much more in keeping with hockey’s truculent aesthetic than the handshake. One says, “I acknowledge our battle, fellow warrior” while the other looks like he just closed a home equity loan at the bank.

Loser: EBUGs

We all fell in love with emergency goaltenders this season thanks to the plucky Zamboni driver who defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Ben Bishop told us on ESPN On Ice that most teams have taken extra goaltenders to the hub cities, negating the need for an emergency goalie. Dallas has Bishop and Anton Khudobin, Jake Oettinger and Landon Bow in the bubble. The Zamboni drivers can stand down.

Winner: Carolina’s front office

I’m not sure what my colleagues saw in the New York Rangers in the qualification-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. The regular-season offense? The goaltending depth? I thought it was pretty clear that Carolina was a playoff-tested team that figured out how to defend against a team like the Rangers. But more than anything, it was the depth, and for that the Hurricanes’ front office should be credited. Look no further than the Sami Vatanen trade, in which a lot us felt that the rich were just getting richer on the blue line. With Dougie Hamilton out, Vatanen manned the power play expertly and skated 19 minutes, 14 seconds per game. A smartly constructed team, and with the top line starting to become a juggernaut, things are getting pretty interesting for Carolina.

Loser: Potential MVPs getting swept

Last season, Nikita Kucherov followed an MVP regular-season campaign with two assists in three games, a minus-4 and a one-game suspension as the Lightning were swept by Columbus. Artemi Panarin had a power-play goal and a secondary assist on a short-handed goal against Carolina, but a player who made his MVP case on even-strength scoring didn’t have a 5-on-5 point against the Hurricanes and was a minus-3.

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Here’s my piece on the NHL’s first attempt at a group that tackled diversity and racial inequality in hockey, the league’s diversity task force. “The league wanted to execute it. Whether or not they did everything they could has yet to be determined, but they were trying.”

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