People who criticize winter sports like basketball and hockey often point to an unnecessarily large postseason field, where more than half the teams in the NBA and NHL make the playoffs.
What’s the point of a regular season, they say, if it eliminates fewer than half the teams in the league?
And while regular seasons are entertaining and exciting on their own merits in the NHL and NBA, hockey would be going one step too far if it implements a rumored plan on how to potentially finish off a season interrupted by COVID-19. Per reports, the NHL would go to a 24-team field, potentially having each division hosting neutral-site series if it can’t complete the 82-game regular season.
If you’re the NBA and NHL and you’ve lost nearly two months of your season already, trying to get any more regular season games in should be thrown out the window. We’re past that point already. Hockey teams played between 68 and 71 games before the 2019-2020 season was suspended, enough time to have made or missed the playoffs given all the circumstances the U.S. and Canada is in right now.
Would it be tough for a team like the New York Islanders, who finished one point out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference despite having two games in hand on the Columbus Blue Jackets? Absolutely. But if you give the Isles the extra two games, do you also give the Carolina Hurricanes, tied with Columbus, those extra two games as well? Then teams like Toronto, the New York Rangers and Florida would ask for more time as well. Same in the Western Conference for teams like Vancouver and Minnesota, who are chasing Winnipeg, Calgary and Nashville for those finals berths.
People love college basketball’s championship week with all its conference tournaments during normal years to determine automatic berths into the NCAA Tournament, but they’re ultimately needless money grabs. What’s the purpose of the regular season if virtually every team makes their respective conference’s tournaments anyway? It’s why people live and die with college football, because every game becomes intensely crucial when only four teams get to compete for the national championship in the end.
Are there NBA teams like Portland, New Orleans, San Antonio and Sacramento that wished they had extra games to chase Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West? Of course. Will NHL teams and their rights partners be upset that they won’t get the revenue for the remaining 11-14 regular season games? Obviously. That’s probably why this 24-team plan was floated in the first place.
But not only is there likely not time for anymore regular season games, putting 24 teams in the playoffs diminishes the regular season to the point of near irrelevance. Play five-and-a-half months of grueling, intense hockey to eliminate just seven of the 31 teams?
If we’re using the Sportsnet model of a 24-teamer quoted in the CBS
article, the top two teams in each division play each other for the title and we have 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5 matchups to qualify for a 16-team field. That would put the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks, who earned less than a point per game, in the playoffs against Toronto and Calgary teams that finished 13 and 12 points ahead of them respectively. In a best-of-three series, those poor regular seasons could be turned around very quickly in an undeserved fashion.
Would it be great if things could go back to normal where the regular season can be finished off and we can have as much of a normal playoffs as we can in the NHL and NBA? Definitely. But in the stage where we’re at right now in the age of coronavirus, normalcy across North America isn’t happening anytime soon. So compromise has to be made. A 24-team playoff that renders a hard-fought regular season moot should not be one of those compromises.