In 2012, the Los Angeles Kings were crowned NHL champions. Their Stanley Cup capped a near-perfect playoff run, in which they dropped a total of just four games on their way to the top. The triumph marked the first in the team’s 44-year history. Maybe most remarkably, the Kings stampeded over the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the Western Conference.
But wait? Doesn’t that mean that the Kings held the last seed? Strangely enough, one of the most dominant runs in playoff history came from the No. 8-seeded Kings. It was a remarkable Cinderella story.
In the 2012–13 season, the Yale men’s hockey team, like L.A., finished third in its division. The Elis also lost the final two games of their season — the ECAC quarters and third place games — prior to the NCAA tournament. Yale, like the Kings, was a bottom seed. And Yale just as improbably and impressively, swept through to its first national championship.
But while these scenarios, on the surface, appear to be mirror images, they are actually a false reflection.
The Kings had demonstrated in the playoffs that they were capable of domination; and yet, it could be argued that they did not deserve to have been in the playoffs in the first place. Though the Kings’ victory was inspiring, they were in utter disarray halfway through the season. In mid-December, they fired head coach Terry Murray. They dropped the final two games of the season, falling to third in their division and barely squeaking into the playoffs in the eighth slot. The team fell short of 200 goals for the season: the second worst tally in the league. It lost or tied more games than it won. And yet, the Kings became the first No. 8 seed to hoist the Stanley Cup.
For 82 grueling games, spanning over seven months, rarely taking more than three-day breaks, NHL players smash each other into glass boards, slash each other across the ankles, and dive in front of 100 mile-per-hour pucks. And then, when the season is said and done, half the teams make the playoffs. It seems almost comical to endure that much, if, in the end, a team that loses and ties more games than it wins can earn a playoff berth.
Again, on the surface, there are similarities between the NHL and the ECAC. In some ways, the ECAC also diminishes the importance of the regular season: though four teams get byes, every team qualifies for the playoffs. Therefore, not having a bye is the only disadvantage of going 0–37.
But those 37 games are one of the two key differences. Yale played 25 conference games that season and 37 games overall. That is to say, the Elis played less than half as many games as their NHL counterparts.
Moreover, Yale is one of 60 Division I programs. If a team does not win its league’s playoffs, it has to compete with the other 55 teams for an at-large bid. This bid is a calculation that accounts for a host of other factors, including strength of schedule — something not accounted for in the NHL. ECAC regular season games, while they might not be important for the conference playoffs, remain vital for an at-large bid. And Yale, though it only went 12–9–1 in conference play, went 10–3–2 out of conference, including a win over No. 2 Denver.
With fewer games to play, more teams against which to compete and a wild-card system that values the strength of a schedule, the ECAC lays a far greater importance on each and every regular season game. In this way, not only are the players safer, but each game is far more intense, as each one matters.
To me, this is the essence of sports. Why do we hold our breath for every college football game? Because one loss and you’re out of contention for a title. We love March Madness and the NFL playoffs because they are single elimination.
It seems clear then, that there are three approaches to making each game matter more: the NHL could reduce the number of teams that make the playoffs, add a weighting system that includes strength of schedule for at-large bids, or shorten the season.
In the first instance, many would object that playoff hockey is the best hockey. To reduce the number of teams, thereby reducing the number of series, would be to diminish the best part of the game. I appreciate that argument, but I disagree. I think fewer postseason slots makes earning a bid more worthwhile; and rather than making the playoffs longer at the expense of diminishing the regular season to superfluous tedium, reducing the number of playoff teams elevates the regular season to a higher level of tension — which is the entire point. Let’s not forget, however, that the NHL profits from the number of playoff games.
The current system of simply bestowing wild-card births to teams with the best records ensures that the teams in the toughest divisions are at a disadvantage. In this way, a weighting system would certainly level the playing field in gaining entrance into the playoffs.
But I don’t think this is a good idea because it would diminish the importance of the divisions themselves. Divisions beget rivalries. Rivalries precipitate intense games. In this way, though a weighting system would level the playing field, it would diminish the rivalries and the intensity of the games — which is the entire point.
Lastly, the NHL could shorten the season. This seems like a no-brainer on every level save for financially. This would be better for players’ health and for increasing the value of each game — which is the entire point. Thus, if the NHL could overlook the financial aspects, it should reduce the amount of playoff teams, keep the wild card system the same and abridge the season. It won’t ever do that. But luckily I’m a fan with a keyboard, not the commissioner.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org