How to Build a Better Stanley Cup Playoffs

new york islanders nhl playoffs 2015

The NHL playoffs began on April 15. Two weeks later, we’re still in the first round round. Tampa Bay and Detroit will close it out when they meet for a Game 7 on April 29. After a long opening round, following a long 82-game regular season, you have to wonder: Is the NHL postseason really rewarding great hockey? Kid Reporter Evan Bergen-Epstein says “no.”

Most hockey fans consider the Stanley Cup to be the best trophy in sports. Of course they do. Measuring over 35 inches tall and weighing almost as many pounds, it’s by far the largest trophy in major pro sports. Such an award should only be given to a team worthy of the honor. The current NHL playoff format does not do that.

The playoff field of 16 clubs accounts for more than half the 30-team league. This means that a team in the bottom half of the league gets to play a postseason series. 

Teams that aren’t good enough to finish in the top half do not deserve a chance to win the Cup, and they hardly ever do. With the exception of the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, no seventh- or eighth-seeded team has ever won the Stanley Cup, and the only No. 8 seed to make the finals besides the ’12 Kings was the 2006 Edmonton Oilers. 

With so many games to play before they get there, the two teams reaching the finals are usually banged up. Because each of the four rounds are played as seven-game series, players are much more likely to get hurt, especially in a physical game like hockey. 

Despite the extensive period over which the NHL playoffs are spread, players do get tired from numerous games and travel hours. This makes the playoffs more of an endurance competition, rather than a measurement of the team with the best hockey skills on any given day, as the playoffs are meant to be.

The realignment of the league into four divisions in 2013 opened a door to a better playoff system, but in my opinion, the NHL missed an opportunity. Instead of the current format (allowing the top three teams in each division, plus two wild card teams from each conference into the playoffs), I suggest a new system with six teams from each conference, or twelve total. 

The top two teams in each division would be granted a first-round bye, much like the NFL’s postseason format. The remaining four spots in each conference would be assigned to the next-best teams based on conference standings. This system would reward teams with the two best records throughout the year and penalize those that depend on a weak division to get to the playoffs.

In addition to a decreased number of teams, I suggest rethinking the number of games played in each series. A best-of-three series for the first round, best-of-five for the second round, and best-of-seven for the conference finals and Stanley Cup finals would benefit playoff hockey in many ways. 

The short, early series would provide incentives for teams playing in the first-round games to play their hardest. The decreased number of games would also keep players fresh for later rounds. Finally, the full seven-game series for the biggest matchups would still require stamina, and it would give fans more of the best hockey to enjoy!

Hockey has been nicknamed “the fastest game on ice.” With players exerting so much effort, laying their own health on the line each game during the playoffs, and the lower seeds having little chance for a shot at the Cup, the NHL playoff system is in need of revision. 

My system will keep players fresh and deliver top-notch hockey throughout the playoffs for the fans. A change needs to happen in the near future.

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

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