NHL Playoffs: Turning Back The Clocks to the 1980s?

Last week the NHL proposed an unprecedented 24-team playoff. Well, the first round would be considered a play-in, not a playoff, but whatever they want to call it, for the first time in league history 24 teams will be involved in a win-the-series-and-move-on-or-lose-and-go-home scenario.

Great. I love the 24-team idea. It makes sense, and while it is far from perfect, considering the situation in the world, it is not something to be that upset about.

I understand why the NHL opted for 24 teams and finances are a part of it. We can’t forget sports is a business, and losing revenue is never good for business, so 24 teams makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is ranking them 1-12 in each conference, instead of having the top-five in each division, and the final two spots in each conference being wildcard berths, which is simply an expansion of the current playoff format of three teams in each division and two wildcard berths in each conference.

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Maybe that was too simple, I don’t know. The proposed top-12 in each conference format, wasn’t one the NHLPA was unanimous about, but he was ultimately agreed upon.

While I don’t love the top-12 format, the fact the NHL is open to returning to a previous playoff format is exciting.

In 1994 the NHL introduced conference seeding. The division winners were ranked #1 and #2 and then the remaining top six teams in the conference were ranked #3-#8. In 1998 the league expanded to three divisions in each conference, and the division winners were seeded #1-#3 and the remaining top-five teams were ranked #4 to #8. This format remained until 2014 when it changed to the current playoffs, with the top-three in each division and two wildcard teams.


Jan 28, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) during the fastest skater event in the 2017 NHL All Star Game skills competition at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If the NHL is open to previous playoff formats, then let’s go all in.

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The play-in round will be a best of five. That makes sense. And there is discussion that the first round of the actual playoffs will also be a best-of-five. If you don’t remember, the first round of the playoffs was a best-of-five as recently as 1986. Then in 1987, the league changed to best-of-seven for all four rounds.

If the NHL reverts to a five-game series in the first round, after having a play-in round, it makes sense. Otherwise, a team could play five rounds and need to win 19 games.

And if they are going full 1980s again, they need to go all the way.

Bring back four games in five nights. That was epic. I loved it.

In the early 1980s, the first two rounds had the first four games of the series played in five days. The higher seed would play two back-to-back games at home, then on the off-day, the teams would travel to the lower seed’s city and then play consecutive nights again.

In 1980 and 1981, when the seeding was 1 v. 16, 2 v.15 etc, that meant travel wasn’t just within a division or conference. In 1980 the New York Islanders played the LA Kings in the first round and despite traveling from New York to Los Angeles (no private planes) they used the four-games-in-five-nights schedule.

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So please don’t give me the excuse the players can’t play four games in five nights. It would be a challenge, for sure, but there would be no travel in between games. It would be easier than the playoff schedule players had in the 1980s.

I’m told that this scenario has been discussed. How seriously? I can’t say with any accuracy, but the fact they are talking about is great.

In 1986/1987, when the league went to best-of-seven for all four rounds, the first round still had the first four games played in five nights. The league eliminated four in five nights three years later. In the 1990 playoffs each series was seven games with games happening every second night.

I’d love to see a best of five with the first four games played in five nights. It shortens the duration of the playoffs, and heightens the emotion.