Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Should the NHL Start From Scratch and Build a New Playoff System?

For those of you who are fans of ESPN's Bill Simmons, you may have already seen his Page 2 column today. Regardless, you should check it out and read it over as if you're reading an article about the NHL, and not the NBA (that link will probably disappear since ESPN hasn't yet discovered permalinks for it's "blogs").

What's extremely interesting about it is how Simmons outlines a radical idea for a playoff system that would create some serious excitement for the NBA, since the league is apparently incapable of generating any interest in the Finals. That being said, I feel that it would do just as much for the NHL. To be honest, the NHL playoff system isn't broken beyond repair and this year's finals were fairly entertaining. Nonetheless, it seems as if everyday we hear more and more about how badly the NHL's television ratings need a kick in the pants (turns out that's the case in the NBA as well). With Simmons' proposed system, both leagues could benefit greatly. They would almost certainly see a ratings increase, an attendance increase, and most importantly, an "entertaining-as-hell" finish to the season.

If you're a purist, or are afraid of change, or someone who simply loves the playoffs the way they are, take a few minutes and humor me. You are more than welcome to disagree with the following ideas, but all I ask is that you give it a listen. Couldn't hurt, right?

Like I said initially, read the following excerpt from the Sports Guy and pretend that Simmons is talking about the NHL. Anywhere you see 'San Antonio Spurs' think 'Anaheim Ducks' and when you read 'David Stern' think 'Large Bag of Douche Gary Bettman'. The ideas that Simmons outlines create a playoff format drastically different from any we've seen before, but it could seriously work wonders for both leagues.

Anyway, Warriors announcer Bob Fitzgerald made two radical proposals in his blog recently: One for realigning the conferences (not as pressing of an issue), and one for turning the playoffs into a straight 16-team bracket, almost like the Sweet 16 for March Madness, where seeds are awarded by win-loss records (so Dallas would have been No. 1 this spring, Phoenix would have been No. 2 and the Clips would have been No. 16). Please know that (A) I loved this idea and will always be ticked off that somebody else thought of it, and (B) John Hollinger beat me to the punch on Monday with his own version of how he'd handle the reseeding. Anyway, I chewed on the concept, chewed on it some more ... and decided that I'd tinker with Bob's renegade idea in the following ways:

• The top six teams from each conference still make the playoffs, only because we need the conference alignments to mean something.

• The team with the best record gets the No. 1 seed; the best team in the other conference gets the No. 2 seed. Every other seed is up for grabs. For this season, Dallas would have been No. 1, Detroit No. 2, Phoenix No. 3. and San Antonio No. 4. None of those teams could have played one another until the conference finals. Now that, my friends, is a good thing.

• For the No. 13-16 playoff spots, the league adopts my antitanking idea (from my April 23 magazine column):

"Shorten the regular season by four games, guarantee the top six seeds in each conference, then have a double-elimination tourney for the seventh and eighth seeds between the remaining ... teams. I suggest this for five reasons. First, it would be entertaining as hell. In fact, that's what we'll call it: the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament. Second, I'm pretty sure we could get it sponsored. Third, the top 12 teams get a reward: two weeks of rest while the tournament plays out.

"Fourth, a Cinderella squad could pull off some upsets, grab an eighth seed and win fans along the way. And fifth, with the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament giving everyone a chance, no team could tank down the stretch without insulting paying customers beyond repair."

Is there any downside for that idea? Lottery teams couldn't tank down the stretch and sideline their best players with dubious injuries. Playoff teams get two weeks of rest and practice so they'll be running on all cylinders in the playoffs. And if that's not enough, the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament would be entertaining as hell, wouldn't it? Then, when the real playoffs started, we'd have a wide-open, 16-team bracket in which (A) the top-four teams couldn't play each other until the conference finals, (B) the matchups would be completely unpredictable, and (C) the bracket even would lend itself to a few illegal office pools (with the Finals MVP as the tiebreaker).

Just think of all the problems this solves for the NHL almost instantaneously.

  • Bettman and the owners will have raging mega huge boners just thinking about how easily so many 'non-traditional NHL fans' will be able to relate to the March Madness style bracket format.
  • This story would make huge news in the world of sports, and TV ratings will jump because of it. Maybe they won't go through the roof, but you can be sure they'll be up, especially in the short run. The fact is, when sports fans hear 'March Madness' (what this essentially is) they come running from all directions. If it's a success, they'll stay around.
  • You won't hear the traditional whining from the teams who barely missed the playoffs. In this format, unless you are absolutely horrific, you've got a playoff shot. The whining was especially loud from Toronto this year after the Devils questionably did not start Brodeur in their final playoff game, giving the Islanders an easy chance to sneak in. All of that would be irrelevant. Teams such as the Maple Leafs would have the chance to settle everything on the ice. Missed the playoffs as the league's 25th best team? Sorry, play better next year.
  • Mediocre and bad teams will be able to sell tickets during the stretch run. That's sure to make a whole slew of owners (and fans) happy. We won't have to expand the playoffs to 20 teams to give every team a chance, instead every team will have a chance during the play in tournament.
  • As Simmons said, it would be pretty easy to get the play in tournament sponsored. Viola! More dough for all those money grubbing owners. The Bud Light NHL Playoff Push Tournament, anyone?
  • When a division has a shitty season, as the Southeast did this year, their winner doesn't jump multiple teams that are much more deserving of the playoff spot. This season, Atlanta jumped Ottawa and Pittsburgh in the standings, and Atlanta was hands down the worst of the three. The same thing happened out West, too. Vancouver was not hands down better than Nashville, San Jose and Dallas, but they did have fewer points. That's gotta mean something.
  • The division alignments will still mean something. In this format every point counts, and even though winning the division will not get your team an automatic top 3 spot, as long as you continue to play a ton of games against division opponents, the divisions will continue to be relevant. The rivalries that are created out of playing a ton of games against divisional opponents will do just that. It would be a disservice to break up the divisions, and see fewer of these rivalry games.
  • The conferences could potentially even out. This might be a little far fetched, but all of a sudden, teams would not be trying to best other teams in their own conference/division. They would be trying to top teams throughout the entire league.
  • If the NHL were to bring back a schedule where every team played every team during the regular season, then a game between Boston and Chicago in mid-January would be that much more interesting. It would, get this, mean something to the playoff race.

To have a little fun, I've broken down what this year's playoffs would have looked like if this playoff system was installed. There's no way to tell what would have happened during a play in tournament (part of why I love this idea), so I left seeds 13-16 blank.

Playoff Seedings Under Simmons' System
#1 Buffalo Sabres vs. #16 (play in team #4)
#2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #15 (play in team #3)
#3 Nashville Predators vs. #14 (play in runner up)
#4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #13 (play in winner)
#5 San Jose Sharks vs. #12 Calgary Flames
#6 Dallas Stars vs. #11 Minnesota Wild
#7 New Jersey Devils vs. #10 Pittsburgh Penguins
#8 Vancouver Canucks vs. #9 Ottawa Senators

That would leave the 13-16 spots up for grabs from any team that was not listed above. Here's where I differ from Simmons. You couldn't just let EVERYONE in a double-elimination tournament. As great as that sounds, you drastically water down the regular season (since technically everyone has a shot at the playoffs) and the season would drag on and into August. Double elimination? Might as well double the length of the season. Personally, I suggest a 12 team single-elimination tournament, as opposed to18 team double-elimination. This would keep truly abysmal teams (see: Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles) out, proving that the regular season would mean at least a little, and maintaining some standard of quality for the play-in tournament by keeping out the league's worst teams.

Here's how it works: The top four teams out of these 12 would receive a first round bye. The remaining eight teams would knock each other out in the first round (5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, 8 vs. 9), with the winner of the game that had the lowest top seed getting the highest seeded second round opponent. For example, the top team would play the winner of the 8/9 game and the second best team would play the winner of the 7/10 match up. From the second round on, it would be your standard single-elimination tournament, just like March Madness. This type of tournament would only take 11 games to play out. That would add about 2-3 weeks to the schedule so, as Simmons said, why not take out the last week of the regular season (~4 games)? The extra length of the playoffs could be completely nullified by moving away from a 2-2-1-1-1 format and to a 2-3-2 format. With travel times reduced, games could be played much closer together, maybe even on back to back nights. This way, the playoffs wouldn't take until August to complete.

The most interesting part of all this; multiple playoff races would be created. Think about it. The teams at the top, the creme de la creme if you will, would be fighting for those #1/#2 seeds and the right to massacre the #15/#16 teams. If it's a year where one conference doesn't have a serious #1 team, the battle could get even more intense.

The second playoff race would be similar to the one we have now, as teams try to obtain the automatic bids and get some much needed time off while everyone else tries to play their way in.

The third race would be between the 'bottom feeders', who would be trying to play their way into the #23/#24 slots and take their shot in the tournament. No longer would teams be out of the playoffs in mid-January. We could have as many as 26 or 27 teams playing very significant games in late March. That sells tickets, folks and money speaks volumes. In an era when sports are a business, I sincerely wonder if the league would lend an ear to this.

1 comment:

  1. it some very interesting thoughts, but do have my own gripe about the current structure, it's a kinda weird one but i was thinking it over a lot and discussed with

    there are 30 teams vying for 16 spots, while it does allow for the underdog to have a rare chance (Edmonton), i think it's a little crowded to have over 50% of the league in the post season, the NBA has the same problem, alternately MLB has 30 teams looking for only 8 spots, that's rather unfair to have a single wild card with that many teams

    the NFL wild card set up is exclusive and competitive for 32 teams vying for 12 spots, right in the middle between the other 3 sports

    but that is just one thought, the idea of reseeding is unique, but alot of the talk comes about due to result of top heavy conferences, the AL in baseball, the AFC in football, and the Western Conferences in both hockey and basketball, over time they tend to re shift back to the opposite side

    where as the NHL is reeling from the Bettman era trying to define it's new era to the public with players like Crosby and Ovechkin, the NBA is struggling with the fact with even the exposure and household names of Tim Duncan and LeBron James, people are just tired of the same old same old, only people in San Antonio wanted the Spurs in, and when people realized that LeBron couldn't beat them by himself they stopped watching the inevitable fall they knew was coming, had it been any other team in the west like Phoenix or Dallas there would have been no issue, but the Spurs are so boring

    I think what the NHL needs to look to in the future is the best markets for a team to thrive, and i ain't talking to places where you need a machine to make it snow, but re-establishing it's core markets and expanding into cities that are supportive of a team based on enthusiasm and not how fast the city is growing, after last year, i certainly don't think the standard playoff format is boring, i just think it takes some real time to look at things and see if it would be a long term deal that can bring excitement back to the sport or the next glow puck