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The NHL Should Consider the Play-In Tournament

The NBA added a play-in tournament this season before the playoffs proper, and it has created lots of drama at the end of the regular season. The NHL should consider something similar.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In the NHL right now, the playoffs are undoubtedly set. Four teams from each division made it into the playoffs. The top team in each division will play the fourth-ranked team, and #2 will play #3. It is a unique situation this season, but one that fits and provided some intrigue later in the regular season as teams that were on the bubble vied for a top four position, while teams near the top vied to try to get home ice.

However, moving forward, I believe the NHL should consider doing what the NBA is currently doing this season. They did not split the teams up into unique divisions, they kept their schedule similar in that teams played other teams in different divisions and whatnot. But the NBA decided to add in some play-in games, giving teams who end the regular season ranked 9 and 10 in their conference a chance to get into the dance, while to an extent, punishing teams who finish 7 and 8 by forcing them to fall to a play-in game before reaching a longer playoff series.

Now, before I go further, I should clarify that among the four major American sports, I am the least interested in basketball. In fact, in my own hierarchy, I have golf significantly higher, and I watch more curling matches on the Olympic Channel than I watch NBA games. However, I listen to a lot of sports talk radio, and it is impossible to not hear about what is happening in the NBA right now. From my perspective, it seems to me like the country is riveted right now on the end of this regular season, who will make the play-in games, sneaking in at a 10 seed, and even more exciting, who will be able to avoid the play in game by getting a top 6 seed. It appears no one in the NBA cares about home court advantage, so no one cares much about the top seeds, but just getting a top 6 seed is what counts, and it has fans on the edge of their seats as the regular season comes to a close.

In terms of timing, usually the NHL playoffs get going before the NBA ones do, but this year, the NHL playoffs begin today, while the NBA play-in tournament begins on Tuesday, so they are almost exactly in-sync. And this past week, leading to the end of the regular season, there is no doubt between the two which was a more interesting way to conclude the regular season. In the NHL, for the overwhelming majority of teams, there was not much to play for. Most playoff positions had been set by the start of the week, and the only games that mattered really revolved around seeding. The closest race was in the Central, where Dallas had a legit shot to jump ahead of Nashville for a while there, but Nashville officially clinched a week ago today, which meant that all the games that took place this past week had nothing to do about making or missing the playoffs. The excitement level was just not there.

The NBA, seemingly, has it the other way. Everyone is dying to know whether or not LeBron will have to suffer through a play-in tournament and potentially miss the playoffs because of that. Will Golden State be able to get hot with Steph and get in despite a mediocre season? And closer to home, it was a real scare for a while there as to whether or not the Knicks could avoid falling into the play-in, at least when you listened to callers on sports talk radio. The end of the regular season had intrigue and excitement, and mostly it was thanks to this play-in tournament.

If the NHL were smart, it would take this idea and run with it as well. There has always been a problem with playing meaningless games at the end of regular seasons. In the NHL it isn’t too bad, as I feel it is the sport where you are most likely to see players giving 100% out there each and every game regardless of standings, but it still loses some luster and energy when there is nothing to play for. People don’t tune in, or show up to the stadium. Owners lose money as ticket and concession sales drop during those final games. It just seems like a waste of time, as everyone prepares for the playoffs or prepares for the offseason.

The play-in tournament idea does not solve this problem entirely, there will always be teams who are so far out of it that they are done, kind of like Buffalo this season. Our New Jersey Devils, of course, would not have been affected by this, as they were nowhere near a potential to do anything but finish in a bottom 5 position. But it does create compelling storylines right up until the end of the season, even if not specifically for our favorite team. It incentivizes bubble teams to not sell hard and tank at the deadline, as they might be able to sneak in via a play-in game. It gives games meaning right up until game #82, as that last game could determine who is in the play-in versus who can avoid it and get through versus who misses out altogether.

Now of course, I am sure this would have to go through the union as well as the league, and they would have to agree on this which could create issues, as we know how often they agree on things. But the idea is a good one. When the league goes back to normal next year and we have a normal bracket. 3 teams from each division make the playoffs straight for the top 6 in the conference, then you have four wild card teams instead of two, and those teams compete in a play-in bracket before the actual playoffs begin. Now, you would have teams trying their hardest to avoid wild card positions to make it into the top 3 of their division, and you’ll also have teams who normally would know they’re out of it trying very hard to get into the play-in. More compelling competition, more storylines, more drama. The regular season could use all of that, at least in my opinion.

However, what do you think? Is this an awful idea, one that the NHL should not take from the NBA? How could the NHL make this work? Should they try to make this work? How should they modify the idea to make it fit for this league? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.