The NHL(most likely in early August) and, when it does, the league will jump straight into a 24-team playoff. In a traditional year, the league's playoff structure would feature 16 teams and a four-round bracketed tournament. This year, thanks to the regular season being cut short due to COVID-19 shutdown, the four best-of-seven rounds will be preceded by play-in stage and each round will be reseeded.
With the 24-team format, reseeding each round is the right call by the league. It's something that many fans want to see implemented on a regular basis, but it certainly makes sense given the circumstances this year -- especially without a true "home ice advantage" factor due to games being played in hub cities and in front of no fans. Reseeding theoretically gives some reward to higher seeds via more favorable matchups.
However, that appropriate decision to reseed is a bit soiled by the way that the league has decided to distribute the top four seeds in each conference. With each team having played approximately 70 regular season games before the pause, you would think the NHL would be comfortable handing out seeds 1-4 based on the standings at the pause.
But you would be incorrect.
Instead, the league has decided that the top four seeds in each conference will be decided by... a three-game sample.
Here's how it's going to work:
- The best-of-five play-in stage will involve 16 teams
- The eight advancing teams moving on to face the league's top eight teams (seeds 1-4 in each conference)
- Instead of participating in the play-in round, those top eight teams will receive a "bye" through to the Round of 16 and participate in a mini round-robin tournament (three games, one against each of the other top three seeds in their conference) to determine the seeding at the top of the conference
For example, the Bruins, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers are the four teams that sit atop the Eastern Conference standings heading into the postseason. Boston will skip the play-in round and play one game against Tampa, Washington and Philly instead. At the conclusion of the round-robin tournament between the top four teams, the win-loss records of those teams after the three games will determine the 1-4 seeding entering the Round of 16, with regular season points percentage acting as a tiebreaker if needed.
So, the Bruins enter the postseason as de facto Presidents' Trophy winners, eight points clear of the next-best team in the conference with just 12 games remaining on the original regular season schedule. By all indications, they were cruising towards a No. 1 seed and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs under a traditional format. But now, if they stumble out of the gate after an approximate four-month break and lose even one game in the round-robin, they may have to kiss that top seed goodbye.
It's not only Boston that should be irked by the round-robin seeding idea, either. The St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche were two of the best in the West all year long and both entered the break at least six points clear of everyone else in the conference. Yet they'll both be at risk of sliding down a few spots if they have a tough five-or-six-day stretch during the round-robin stage.
On the other side of the scenario, you've got a team like the Dallas Stars, who headed into the break on a six-game losing streak and were 12 points out of first in the West with 13 games to play. They now have an opportunity to be the conference's top seed, with a chance to earn the most favorable matchup in each round they advance.
Ultimately, for some reason, a three-game stretch is being prioritized over the existing 70-game sample.
Adding some stakes to the round-robin stage potentially adds more drama and entertainment for fans, but the NHL's focus should remain centered on maximizing the legitimacy of this year's postseason. With the strange circumstances, you know there are going to be people just waiting to invalidate and de-legitimize the playoffs (and the eventual champion) based on the altered format. And they will not be wrong.
Given the long break, the expanded playoff picture and the play-in series being best-of-five, there's a high degree of unpredictability approaching the Round of 16 this year. The potential for seemingly undeserving teams to sneak in seems high, which is why the NHL absolutely had to make each of the four rounds a best-of-seven series despite concerns of a compressed schedule and this year's postseason affecting the timeline of the 2020-21 season. It's also why reseeding was the right call. A lower-seeded fringe team may luck their way into the Round of 16, but the road from there will be difficult... as it should be.
The unpredictability surrounding the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a normal year is a big reason why it's considered one of the best postseasons that sports has to offer. Still, that doesn't change the fact that the onus is on the league to manage those things appropriately where they can, for the sake of fairness and legitimacy. The best teams from the regular season should be guaranteed to be rewarded with the most favorable path through the postseason, otherwise what's really the point of the regular season?