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Photo Credit: Andy Devlin/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

21 Questions: Will the NHL maintain an expanded playoff format?

Welcome to 21 Questions, an off-season series in which we look at some interesting Oilers- and NHL-related questions heading into the 2021 season. 

It looks like the NHL season is going to begin in mid-January.

The biggest point of contention between the NHL and the Players’ Association was that the owners wanted to make changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that was agreed upon before the league returned to play over the summer.

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According to multiple sources, there “will be no more discussions on proposed financial changes” when it comes to the CBA and both sides are moving forward with the intent of starting a 56-game season on Jan. 13.

There are still a handful of things for the league and the players to agree on before the 2021 season can get underway but this is certainly a huge step in the right direction. The league and the players will need to agree on logistics, safety protocols, and so on and so on, but none of these things should be as much of a point of contention as the financial issues were.

Back in the summer, Major League Baseball became the first North American league to start and execute an entire season in the COVID world. MLB used this year as an opportunity to trial some rule changes that had been discussed for years, like having a universal designated hitter in both the American and National League, starting a free runner on second base in extra innings, and expanding the playoff field from 10 to 16 teams.

Will the NHL use the 2021 season as a trial period for any major changes? How about a new take on the expanded playoff field?

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Beyond MLB, the expanded playoff field has also made its way to both the NFL and the NBA.

The NFL has added an extra wild-card team in each conference, going from 12 to 14 playoff teams. This means that “Wild Card Weekend” now features six games rather than four. The NBA is adding a play-in tournament in which the teams ranked No. 7 to No. 10 in each conference have a mini-tournament to determine who the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds are in the playoffs. There isn’t a guarantee that MLB will maintain an expanded playoff field, but it looks likely.

The reason for expanding the playoffs is obvious — money.

A key aspect of the North American professional sports model is relying on an end-of-season tournament to generate excitement and, in turn, revenue. Television advertisements are obviously worth a lot more in the playoffs when more people are watching a meaningful game than they are in the middle of the season. Also, players aren’t paid in the playoffs (save for a pool of cash for the winner and runner-up), so the revenue owners generate here is gravy.

From MLB’s perspective, the season got shrank from 162 to 60 games, with salaries being prorated to match the change. At the end of the season, there was a whole new Wild Card Round to generate more television revenue to help compensate for the fact that fans weren’t attending games and buying beer and hot dogs all summer. “The MLB Wild-Card Round brought to you by Hankook Tire” surely helped offset some losses from the 2020 season.

The NHL, as we know, expanded its playoff format from 16 to 24 teams this year. This decision was made in order to ensure that all of the teams who were fighting for a playoff spot when the league got paused in March had a fair chance at the Stanley Cup. Oilers fans obviously have a bitter taste in their mouths from this format change but the league was surely thrilled to have more games on TV.

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Will the NHL maintain this playoff format specifically? I doubt it. Will they maintain an expanded playoff field in some capacity? Probably.

Just as we saw with the other leagues, the NHL is going to want to do something to compensate for the lost revenue of not having fans in the stands. The best way to do that is to tack on more playoff teams.

Personally, I think the 24-team format is waaaaay too much. There’s already an argument to be made that having half of the teams in the league make the playoffs dilutes the meaning of being a “playoff team.” Having 24 out of 31 teams in the mix is insane. There would be almost no point to the regular season if that was the case.

Something similar to the NBA’s model probably makes the most sense. It isn’t overly intrusive, it doesn’t diminish the entire purpose of the regular season, it gives good teams a chance to rest for a few days before the big dance, and, of course, it adds a fun little tournament to generate revenue.

The NHL appears to likely be rolling with altered divisions for 2021, including an All-Canadian division, in which teams exclusively play geographical rivals. The play here for expanding the playoffs akin to the NBA model would be having the top three seeds in each division make the playoffs while the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds do a three-game play-in series to get in. The winner of that series would then play the No. 1 team in the division, so there’s an advantage to finishing on top because you get to face a tired team.

It doesn’t really change all that much but it gives the NHL another round of playoff games to make money from.

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