Damien Cox: Expanding the Stanley Cup playoffs was a good idea that should stick around. It might be just the start

Canada

It sure seems like we’ve learned something here.

Such as, maybe expanding the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t actually a disgusting idea after all.

The league that was once mocked for having 16 of 21 teams make the post-season has found, in 2020, that being flexible with its playoff structure has paid some significant dividends in the middle of what is a terrible time for the business of professional sports.

Whatever drove the NHL to expand its post-season membership to 24 teams from 16 — and we suspect it was largely a means of getting several large markets involved — it’s fair to say that the result has been positive.

Hockey in August isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but creating interest in markets such as Chicago, Montreal and Phoenix when otherwise there would have been none has been an undeniable benefit to the league.

Doing all that while maintaining two pristine “bubbles” without further coronavirus infections has surely been one of the NHL’s most successful organizational efforts in recent memory.

There was a great deal of risk involved, and surely the possibility of embarrassment, but the NHL and its players’ association have so far managed to make this work beautifully.

Remember, the situation was worrisome enough that a group of NHLers including Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, Sven Baertschi, Roman Polak, Steven Kampfer and Karl Alzner, as well as Florida assistant coach Mike Kitchen, decided to opt out of the process altogether. So the fact that the first stages of the NHL post-season have gone off without a hitch really is a credit to the league, the union and the players.

It’s difficult to measure at this point how much the NHL has achieved for its business by deciding to play without fans in Edmonton in Toronto, and by excluding only seven teams from the process. Television numbers in Canada are good, but in terms of overall impact on the hockey public and the North American sports market, these remain early days.

But having this initial play-in stage, called the qualifying round, has been a success. Perhaps we’ll feel differently when another four rounds of playoffs drag this process into October, but for now having eight best-of-five qualifiers before the round of 16 has generated enthusiasm in markets that wouldn’t have otherwise had any, and created a new dynamic for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It would be hard to argue at this point that any of the teams added to make up this year’s group of 24 were substandard or didn’t belong. Teams are bunched closer than ever in the salary-cap era, and based on what we’ve seen in this unprecedented situation, the difference between teams in the middle third of the league and the bottom third may not be as great as some believe.

The Vegas Golden Knights certainly demonstrated that it’s possible to start from scratch and immediately be one of the NHL’s best teams, a standard the Seattle Kraken will be expected to meet when they begin play in 2021-22.

Most hockey fans prefer playoff competition over regular-season play and find the latter far more meaningful and entertaining. Moreover, keeping more teams involved in the fight for a playoff berth creates more interest in more markets.

So, should the NHL now permanently expand its playoffs?

You can certainly make that argument, particularly if it was possible to shorten the regular season while expanding the post-season. There’s also room for more experimentation with other ideas, such as:

  • Series between teams that don’t make the playoffs at all to determine the final standings and, possibly, the order for the NHL draft.
  • A series between the conference leaders at the end of the regular season with the winner getting the Presidents’ Trophy, thus elevating the profile of that award.
  • Using the hub concept to create mid-season mini-tournaments, copying the all-day format being used right now.

Truly, anything is possible now that the NHL has busted through the 16-team barrier without a negative vibe.

For so long, the league has been wedded to the philosophy that the regular season must be a marathon elimination competition that sends about half of the teams home before the Cup tournament begins. But if playoff games generate more profitable gates and TV ratings, not to mention enthusiasm for the sport in more cities, perhaps these playoffs will lead to a larger rethink about the way in which the NHL could structure its games and competitions.

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Sure, it was a shame the NHL couldn’t complete its 82-game schedule this year. But let’s face it, many — if not most — of those games that were cancelled wouldn’t have had a great deal of meaning. It was a lot more interesting to watch the New York Rangers test themselves in a series against the Carolina Hurricanes than it would have been to watch them play 12 more regular-season games and miss the playoffs.

Let’s not forget that when the next season begins, it almost certainly will still be without fans in the seats. The league is going to need all the exciting ideas it can come up with to keep the business flowing until the day comes when things reach a new normal.

Based on the past 10 days, expanding the playoffs seems as good an idea as any.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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