The idea of a 22 or 24-team Stanley Cup Playoffs to round out the 2019-20 season has been floated by numerous hockey insiders on social media and radio shows over the last few weeks, as the NHL continues its “no idea is too crazy” approach to continuing play sometime this year.
It’s easy to understand why the league is leaning in this direction: it has now been more than two months since the last time a goaltender interference call has been furiously debated on Twitter. From March 12 to May 15 of last year, 200 regular season and 76 playoff games had been played, and the infamous hand pass game between San Jose and St. Louis in the Western Conference Finals had just played out to the horror of NHL Hockey Ops. That’s a lot of lost gate and broadcast revenue for the league, so recouping some of those losses through more playoff games does make sense on the surface, if you put yourself in the league’s shoes.
But at what cost? At the pause of the season, teams had played between 83-87% of their seasons with the understanding that 16 teams would make the playoffs and 15 teams would be in the draft lottery. To have the odds of making the playoffs so drastically loosened this late in the season serves to lessen the importance of that first five-sixths of the season, and almost certainly creates a situation where the eventual cup winner has an invisible asterisk forever attached to their victory.
In a perfect world the league would play some, if not all, of the remaining regular season games and not make any changes to the playoff eligibility rules to preserve the competitive integrity of the playoffs. However, the world as we know it right now is far from perfect, which requires alterations to the way we operate. There are many questions that are unanswered about what hockey will look like when it returns from this break, but maintaining the integrity of the game and safety of the players and crew should be at the heart of any decisions that are made, trumping financial need or the desire to just get back to normal at all costs.
If restarting the season with no changes to either the regular season or playoff formats is just not realistic, perhaps there’s a way to work with the expanded playoff format idea while maintaining a minimum competitive threshold that is to be expected of an NHL playoff team. I introduce to you the Minnesota Mediocrity threshold.
Wild fans, put down your pitchforks. I can hear the 1967 taunts already. This isn’t meant as an indictment of your franchise. The Wild just so happen to have the honour of being the team with the lowest points percentage (0.530) to make the playoffs since the 2013-14 season. With 87 points in the 2015-16 season, Minnesota comfortably settled into the eighth playoff spot in the West, five points clear of the ninth-place Avalanche and nine points back of the Predators in seventh, en route to a six-game loss to the Dallas Stars in the first round.
Assuming the league wants to get in some regular season games prior to the playoffs but doesn’t want to spend more than three weeks completing the entire regular season, let’s say that the goal is for every team to reach 76 games played. This means teams will have between five to eight games remaining to play before the playoffs. For the teams on the outside looking in, a slate of games this size provides a glimmer of hope that they may be able to get over the hump and into the running for Lord Stanley.
Using the Minnesota Mediocrity (MM) threshold and adjusting it ever so slightly upward to 0.533 for a 76 game season brings us to an even 81 point threshold for post season inclusion. So let’s look at how the standings froze at the break:
Here’s how these teams would have to fare in the final drive to achieve Minnesota Mediocrity status:
For most teams on this list, it would be a cakewalk, as it probably should be. Winnipeg, Calgary, New York (R), Florida, Nashville, Vancouver and (funnily enough) Minnesota would all easily make the playoffs barring some sort of 36-wheeler off a cliff situation. This would get us to 21 teams. Where it gets interesting is in the bottom group of five teams (Arizona, Chicago, New Jersey, Buffalo, Montreal): all of these teams would have to collect points at a rate significantly higher than what they showed from October to mid-March, which would make for an interesting final stretch of games. Prove you belong, and you get an invite.
In this situation you would in all likelihood end up with 21-24 teams making it past the MM threshold, but it’s more likely on the lower end of that range. An odd number of teams may seem weird, but it’s possible to have a balanced four-game mini tournament with five, six, seven, or even eight teams. All teams outside of the customary top 16 would participate in a quick four-game round robin akin to how international tournaments are set up, with the end product being two teams who would make the official first round of the playoffs.
The unfortunate consequence of any set-up that involves a number of teams other than 16 or 32 is that byes are a reality, so the top two teams in the league would make it through to the second round. The first round would be between the 16 teams that occupy seeds 3 to 18, with a 3v18, 4v17, 5v16 (etc) format. From here the playoffs would take on their natural form.
If you’re going to force additional teams into the playoffs to increase the number of playoff games, it needs to be accompanied with a certain set of standards. Establishing a minimum number of points required for playoff entry this season not only aligns with the baseline for playoff inclusion seen in previous years, but also creates additional intrigue and meaning for those final games of the regular season. At the very least, it protects against substandard teams making the playoffs under a 24 team format, which is undesirable for obvious reasons.
None of this is perfect. We just need to strive for the most perfect possible.
We good, Minnesota?