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Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Should the NHL permanently expand the playoffs?

The NHL plans to resume its season during the summer with a 24-team playoff. It’s unorthodox but it’s what the league has deemed necessary in order to resume the 2019/20 campaign. But, what if this wasn’t a one-time thing? What if the NHL decided to permanently expand the playoff format? Most hockey fans will immediately scoff at that idea since it would radically change the way the Stanley Cup Playoffs work, but there are plenty of reasons for the NHL to consider making this change.

The league will soon be adding a 32nd franchise. In the last few years, they’ve expanded the number of teams in the league but they haven’t touched the playoff format. If they keep the number of playoff teams at 16, then that means only 50% of the league gets a chance to generate some form of playoff revenue. From a financial perspective, it makes sense to expand the playoffs.

If they kept the current 24 team format, that would mean 75% of the league would be making the playoffs. The last time the league had over 70% of its teams make the playoffs was back in 1992 when there were just 22 teams in the NHL (16 qualified for the playoffs). 

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In fact, the last time the NHL expanded their playoff format was after the 1978-79 season when the league grew from 17 teams to 21 and changed the number of playoff teams from 12 to 16. Since then, there have always been 16 teams in the playoffs. So once the league expands to 32 teams, they would have added 11 teams without touching the playoff format. That seems a little odd to me.

The other side of this is money that could be made from adding more teams to the playoffs. For the eight teams that get a chance to partake in the ‘play-in’ round, they would potentially get 2-3 more home playoff games. That’s a lot of money right there.

Add in the fact that a TV Network would want to pay for these games and the extra sponsorship money, it’s easy to see the financial benefit of expanding the playoffs. That puts more money in the owner’s pockets and would result in a higher salary cap ceiling which would mean more money for the players. It really seems like a win-win-win. The fans get more meaningful hockey and both the owners and players get more money. I’ve brought this up to a handful of people over the last week or so and some have pointed out a few negatives with an expanded playoff format.

First, some think it might cheapen the regular season. With 75% of the league making the playoffs, there’s a belief that the regular season might lose some of its intensity. I can understand that but at the same time, it would create more intriguing races. There would be those who are fighting up until the end of the regular season for a first-round bye. There would be the teams vying for home ice in the first round, which would be very important in a best-of-five. Then finally, there would be the teams fighting for the final few playoff spots in each conference.

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In my opinion, the first round of the NHL playoffs in the current format is the best few weeks of the season It’s intense, there’s lots of hockey on, everyone is fighting for their lives, and there are often huge upsets. Why not extend that? The play-in round would have that same intensity.

So while some feel that extending the playoff format might cheapen the 82 game regular season, I don’t have that same concern. I think there would be that same intensity throughout the year.

Adding more teams to the playoffs might also make it less desirable for teams to tank. This past season, the gap between the 12 seed (final playoff spot in the 24 team format) and the last-place team in the Western Conference was just nine points. In the East, it was 32 because of the historically bad Detroit Red Wings but the Senators were second-last in the conference and just nine points out of the 12th spot. With a 24-team playoff, more teams stay in the race for longer. That should create more intrigue in more markets for more of the regular season.

The final negative that I could pull from this is that the higher seeds in each conference might not benefit from getting a bye through the first round. It goes back to the whole ‘rust vs rest’ debate that usually comes up when a team sweeps their way through a round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the current format. Is the added time-off a good thing because it allows the team to get back to 100% and be fully energized? Or does that time off hurt them because they lose some of their momentum?

I could see why that would be a concern but at the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather get a bye through the play-in round and have home-ice advantage in the second round than risk getting ousted in the play-in round? I sure would.

I personally like the idea of a 24-team playoff becoming the new norm but I understand that it might be too radical for some fans. So how about a compromise? What if the league expanded the playoffs to 20 teams. 

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Instead of two wild card teams from each conference, they have four. The top-seeded wild card team will play the fourth seed while two will face three in a best-of-three series. That series wouldn’t take more than a week to play and would allow more teams to get in on playoff action.

I think adding more teams to the playoff picture is a fantastic idea for the league and honestly, after laying things out, I really can’t find a reason for the league to not seriously look into it. Disagree? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@tyleryaremchuk)!