For weeks, fans of the National Hockey League waited.
Within the time of suspense, the question was raised: will there be a Stanley Cup victor for the 2019-20 season? Would one of the prized trophies in all of sports be lifted, or would the unthinkable happen and the Cup not be raised for only the third time in over a century (the other two times came in 1919 due to the Spanish Flu and in 2005 due to the season-long lockout)?
Luckily for NHL fans, a plan is now in place for Lord Stanley’s Cup to be lifted by an eager team. The plan, through different phases that will take place over the coming months, will eventually pit 24 teams against each other. An amount larger than the usual 16 and an amount that should bring plenty of entertaining possibilities.
24 teams vying for the Cup? Definitely exciting.
Were 24 teams, as opposed to a smaller amount, necessary, though?
To quickly recap, the regular season, despite barely scratching 70 games in an 82-game regular season, would be complete. With the regular season concluded, standings for all teams were determined by points percentage. From the points percentage, the top-four teams from each conference will take place in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding between the four teams. The remaining teams from each conference are seeded in a format reminiscent of March Madness, where a 12-seed takes on a five, a nine takes on an eight and so on. This part of the bracket, per the return to play guidelines, acts as the qualifying rounds, which will be best-of-five. The winners of the qualifying rounds will eventually take on the top-four teams in the conference that are seeded from the round-robin.
This format encourages parity. Parity, and thus unpredictability, is what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs great, after all.
Although, the case could be made that it is too much parity. While the 12-seed Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks will vehemently disagree, both teams barely scratched 70 points (Montreal with 71 and Chicago with 72) in the regular season. Although it could have been possible that either team could have turned a corner in the final dozen regular season games, would it have happened? No one will ever know, but given the inconsistencies of both, it is safe to say it would have remained unlikely.
The same could also be said for the 11-seed New York Rangers and Arizona Coyotes. Both teams, while exciting in their own rights, were inconsistent at times. Giving all four of these teams a shot, while definitely entertaining, would promote too much parity and, as a result, potentially cheapen the Stanley Cup winner entirely, no matter who would come out on top.
Additionally, more teams in the playoffs also equals more games in the playoffs. With a vaccine for COVID-19 still not available, the likelihood of players getting infected, and thus a delay of the season even further (or perhaps shutting down entirely before or during the playoffs) becomes more of a possibility.
To keep the Stanley Cup Playoff from getting delayed by this, less games and teams would be enticing.
Instead of a round-robin tournament for the top-four seeds in each conference, a round-robin tournament for the top-two wild card teams and the two runner-up’s would make up for the regular season being canceled and would still provide an opportunity for teams on the outskirt of a playoff spot to fight for one of the final spots. Once the round-robin is complete, the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup Playoff field would be set and, after seeding is fixed to determine the beginning rounds, it could be closer to what the playoffs are year in and year out. Parity, along with legitimacy, is maintained with this scenario as the playoff field is more exclusive and closer to the actual product in years past.
The return to play format introduced definitely brings entertainment value, but parity with more teams potentially cheapens the product and opens the sport up to a possibility of another outbreak. A slight tweak to the rules with less teams fighting for the Cup could prevent that.
24 teams would be fun for sure, but perhaps too extreme. More teams breed parity that encourages and rewards weaker teams. Bringing the Stanley Cup back should not require to give teams a shot that are not deserving.
20 teams cut down to 16? Potentially more practical while still entertaining.
While NHL fans now have a firm idea of what to expect once hockey resumes, it is possible that the hockey that will resume is too much game and parity-wise.