This was going to be the year to experiment. No matter what, the 2020 postseason was going to be different. The coronavirus dictated that. The NHL should be applauded for thinking outside the box and trying different things this year, but when the league looks forward to the next season and beyond, let's not get nuts.
The 2020 postseason format has been great given the time we are living in and the adjustments that had to be made, but no, the NHL should not adopt this postseason format going forward, regardless of how fun it has been.
Let's be clear, the regular NHL's playoff format is bad. This is in no way a defense of the nonsensical divisional format which sets up the same matchups over and over and over again and punishes teams in good divisions. A wild card format so complicated you can't explain it to a casual fan? Having the two best teams in a division play in the second round even if they are the two best teams in the conference? Blech. It's terrible. The 2020 postseason format, however, is not a good alternative.
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Look, I get it. The best-of-five series are fun! The best-of-seven series can feel drawn out by comparison. In a best of five, every game feels really important!
When the NHL was presenting its plan for the 2020 postseason, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about why the league elected not to shorten some of the playoff series to best-of-five as well and he said the players advocated not to do that so as not to cheapen the Stanley Cup. It takes 16 wins to win the Cup. Period. Even in a pandemic.
The NBA used to have best-of-five series in the first round and that made sense because a lot of those first-round matchups were garbage. The NBA does not have nearly the same level of parity as the NHL and the top teams almost always advanced with little drama at all. The first round of the NHL playoffs is fantastic and full of upsets. There's no reason to fast-forward through those series and play fewer games because those series are compelling.
OK, so keep the four-round, best-of-seven format. What about a play-in best of five series?
First, you can't have 24 teams out of 31 (soon to be 32) reach the postseason. For a league that wants its fans and players to care about an 82-game season, having 24 teams make the playoffs renders the regular season nearly meaningless. The only reason the NHL extended the postseason out to 24 teams this year is because the league canceled the end of the regular season and those bottom teams did not have a chance to make a final push for the playoffs like we see every year. There's no reason to extend the field in a normal season.
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While there are few who would advocate expanding the playoffs to 24 teams, there is a case to be made for adding one or two more teams per conference and having a play-in. Even that, to me, is a step too far. When the league expands to 32 teams, exactly half of them will make the playoffs. Do we really need more than that? It's easy to get excited about that prospect now in the midst of the postseason when the level of play is at its best and interest is at its peak, but let's think about the real dog days of the season in January and February. Would devaluing the regular season by adding more teams to the playoff make those January and February games when the season starts to drag more fun to watch or less? We all know the answer to that question.
And, by the way, all of the support to change the playoffs is a reaction to the qualifying series. We haven't seen what this postseason will look like when the playoffs actually get started. Will the round-robin teams end up at a disadvantage when they face off against teams that already played in a do-or-die series? Will injuries become even more rampant in the always grueling postseason because of those teams playing an extra round? It certainly seems like the proponents of adopting the 2020 postseason format are all being quick to declare this a success before seeing how everything ultimately plays out.
The best-of-five series are fun, but this year is different. It's OK to let 2020 be its own success and move on. The only thing the NHL needs to do is get rid of the awful divisional format, take the top eight teams from each conference and re-seed after each round. This year is different. Let's not pretend we need all these changes when life returns to normal.
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