Can we stop the nonsense about expanding the NHL Playoffs?

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It’s become an annual boring conversation about expanding the NHL playoffs to include more teams.

The concept is hysterical to me because when I was a young hockey fan, those not interested in the game would mock that everyone makes the playoffs. Now here we are, decades later, with calls to strengthen those criticisms.

I guess you can blame it on the Return to Play scenario caused by the pandemic in 2020 that saw 24 teams involved out of 31 (Seattle Kraken joined in 2021-22).

Gary Bettman says NHL not expanding playoffs

expand nhl playoffs
Jun 19, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is pictured on the red carpet during the 2019 NHL Awards at Mandalay Bay. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Edmonton on Wednesday and met with the media to discuss the playoffs, among other things. During the press conference, he admitted that the league looked at some ideas regarding the format but ultimately decided against it.

“We’re not looking to change something that we think is working very well,” he said.

Bettman, who has been commissioner since 1993, feels strongly about the the traditional Stanley Cup Playoffs and acknowledged it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports. The current 16 team playoff system, especially with 32 teams in the league, strikes a perfect balance.

“I think it creates great competition throughout the regular season,” Bettman said. “It makes the games most meaningful and there’s nothing like our playoff tournament.”

As someone who leans on the traditional side of this particular argument, I’m completely against the idea of changing the current system.

That being said, I was a huge advocate for the 24-Team Return to Play system. But only because it was the fairest way to complete a season stopped in its tracks due to COVID-19.

The argument for expanding the playoffs

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski revived the debate with an article detailing the NHL Playoffs expand to 20 teams in April.

He advocates for a play-in round (similar to 2019-20) where the 7-10 seeds in each Conference play each other to get into the normal round of 16. The argument made is that it will cause more revenue, excitement, yada yada yada.

The notion that this would still be fair is probably the weakest part of the argument. These playoffs already have their fair share of complaints with the Toronto Maple Leafs or Tampa Bay Lightning going to be knocked out in the first round. Toronto finished 3 overall in the East and Tampa was tied for 4.

Imagine a scenario where the 10th seed Columbus Blue Jackets won their play-in round, knocked off the Florida Panthers in 7 games in the first round, only to be swept in their very next series. I bet there would be some criticism.

Return to Play Criticism

When the NHL announced their 24 team Return to Play Plan, there were plenty of critics. Two teams in particular were mentioned more often than not for being included.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens were both 12 seeds in their respective conference. Both of them advanced with the Hawks knocking off Connor McDavid’s Oilers and the Habs eliminating Sidney Crosby’s Penguins.

How soon we seem to figure the uproar.

This was highlighted by a feature in Forbes, discussing the irrelevance of the NHL’s regular season. According to their article it was only made worse by the new Return to Play plan.

But not only is there likely not time for anymore regular season games, putting 24 teams in the playoffs diminishes the regular season to the point of near irrelevance. Play five-and-a-half months of grueling, intense hockey to eliminate just seven of the 31 teams?


Well, fox now the notion of expanded the playoffs are dead after Bettman’s comments but you can be sure that they’ll be raised again next postseason.