Now that the gloom and doom of a long cold winter have given way to the blue skies and warm temperatures of spring, it’s time for one of the most important sporting events of the year. Baseball’s Opening Day in baseball? College basketball’s March Madness? No, its time for the return of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The champion of the National Hockey League will once again receive the Stanley Cup, one of the most revered trophies in professional sports, at the end of the playoffs later this spring. And, like recent years, it will need a lot of sunscreen to protect it from the harsh ultraviolet rays that will be out when the winning team finally receives the trophy after one of the longest postseasons in sports.
For a sport that excels on the frozen ponds of Canada and northeastern United States, whose season starts when the leaves are falling in late October and plays through the harshest days of winter, doesn’t it seem strange that a team’s ultimate goal is still to be playing after kids get out of school for summer vacation?
Yet, thanks to the heads of the NHL, the self-anointed premier hockey league in the world, that is exactly the situation with which we are left. The second round of the playoffs starts this week, but if the series goes through all seven games, the conference finals will begin the first week in May.
The Anaheim Ducks, last year’s Stanley Cup winners, finally received the trophy June 7. By comparison, when Bobby Orr scored that memorable goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals, it was Mother’s Day in Boston, almost a month earlier.
So, what can be done to prevent a situation where the ice might actually melt during the Cup finals? To rectify this situation, let me propose three different scenarios.
First: Let’s face it - when half of a professional sports league makes the playoffs, it dilutes the strength of the teams that do make the post-season. This year, out of the 16 teams making the playoffs, less than half won over 55 percent of their games. Even the President’s Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings, the team with the overall best record in the regular season, only won 65 percent of its games. By comparison, the best team in the NFL last season, the New England Patriots, went undefeated. The best record in the NBA belongs to a squad that wins four out of five games they play - the Boston Celtics.
So, they should cut the number of teams in each conference to four - the three division winners and one wild card. This is the same format they have in baseball and it makes the playoff races much more compelling. If nothing else, it will eliminate those teams that just sneak into the playoffs and then are swept in the first round.
Second: Cut the number of games in each round. Why does hockey need to have seven games just to complete the first round? There is no difference in rink sizes from arena to arena, the weather is always the same indoors and the lineups feature the same players game in and game out.
So, how about a format where the first round is three games, the second round is five and only the conference and Stanley Cup finals are seven. This way we can eliminate the weaker teams early and save the best hockey for the teams that count.
Finally, if the previous two don’t work: How about this radical change: Have a staggered bracket, where the first round matches up No. 4 vs. No. 8 and No. 5 vs. No. 7. The winners advance to face the No. 3 and No. 4-seeded teams respectively, while the top two teams are automatically in the quarterfinals.
While this will probably never happen, it’s the only one that actually makes sense. It rewards those teams that play hard all season to compile the best record, not just sneak in the playoffs through the backdoor. Is it really fair to have the team with the best record in hockey play the same amount of games to win the title as the team with the worst?
Of course, these are only ideas to help hockey regain its once glorious reputation. They are by no means the only fixes the sport needs to make. You never know - maybe if they can fix the postseason, they can tackle their next big obstacle: how to get to people actually tune in to watch the action.