When playoff baseball came back to the North Shore in 2013 after two decades of futility the fans went nuts. No matter how long I live, no matter how many baseball games I work or attend, there is simply no way that I will ever see something like that again. Now, imagine that kind of atmosphere but in a place like Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In Edmonton, famous for guy you may know called Wayne Gretzky, hockey reigns supreme but their team has been referred to anything from “hopeless” to a “dumpster fire” in recent history. Imagine giving them the chance to play a one game Wild Card situation to enter the playoffs.
Think that thought is crazy? Well, the NHL’s general managers certainly don’t seem to think so.
Recently, Bob McKenzie asked the league’s general managers and surprisingly a majority seemed to be in favor of adopting some sort of expanded playoff play-in.
The appeal of a play-in is simple. When you have 30 teams and parity is at an all-time high, the gap between making the playoffs and missing could be as close as having the same record but more regulation and overtime wins (referred to as ROW by the NHL). Last year, the Penguins had just a two point lead over the Boston Bruins on the last day of the NHL season.
Imagine if, instead of playing the Rangers a few days later, they had to play the Bruins first. That’s right, like the Pirates have done the last few years, the Penguins could have played the Bruins in a one and done type of game. Winner moves on to play the Rangers, loser goes home.
The NHL has one big motivator to add something like this of course — more money. Two Wild Card games give the league another way to get extra revenue into their hands. They get the chance to design t-shirts and come up with catchy social media puns. They get to hype the daylights out of a town that’s maybe just missed in the past few years. Maybe they get to talk about a team that recently won it all being in a play-in spot now. The narratives are juicy, the storylines would write themselves. And the game? The game would be absolutely incredible.
Since you don’t know if this is the only postseason action, you’re going to get every town selling tickets hand over fist. Local bars would fill with those who couldn’t get in, but just wanted to be close in case they get the chance to revel in the win with thousands of their closest friends.
The players would take their games to a level we don’t see every night. Think about the golden goal, but this time Crosby is scoring it for Pittsburgh – not Canada. Imagine the people in the streets if it goes to overtime for a team like Edmonton. I mean it’s the kind of thing sports movie scripts are made of really.
Of course it sounds cool. Especially since Wild Cards exist in both of the other major leagues we have here in Pittsburgh so it’s actually really easy to imagine. But the NHL isn’t known for doing one-and-done games and that’s a big hurdle to leap. One and done games aren’t exactly their style and they kind of buck the flow of the whole series format to the NHL playoffs.
So what about a play-in series? Or a play-in bracket?
When McKenzie asked these GM’s about changing the format, one mentioned a major overhaul that would see the NHL post-season looking more like MLB’s. In this iteration there is a 3 game Wild Card series, then the first series of the playoffs becomes best-of-five before going back to best-of-seven. I have a hard time seeing the NHL leaving their best-of-seven, especially since so many series have come down to that game over the years and this format lends itself better to upsets.
For example, in the NHL four teams have come back from being down 0-3 to win a series. This, referred to as a reverse sweep, includes two instances in the last six years with the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and the 2014 Los Angeles Kings both accomplishing this. This has never happened in the NBA and only once has it occurred in MLB when the Boston Red Sox did it in 2004.
So clearly the system in place works just fine to make series exciting and they don’t want to change that. So maybe the one game Wild Card would be the way to go, since the NHL really doesn’t need to make their playoffs longer and conflict with the heart of baseball season. Or maybe a three game play-in series then the seven games? Who knows! But one thing is for sure, after the success of similar updates in other North American leagues, the NHL is seriously looking at this one and it wouldn’t shock me to see an expansion of the postseason sooner rather than later.