Nick Kypreos — the former NHL-er who now works for SportsNet in Canada — tweeted last night that both the NHL and NHLPA "have had internal discussions" about adding four additional teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you're keeping count, that would mean that twenty teams in all would qualify for the postseason. Presumably, as Puck Daddy has already pointed out, this would happen in conjunction with a return to divisional playoffs, proposed by the league as part of a realignment plan in 2011 and rejected by the players last year. In such a format, the opening rounds of the playoffs would determine a champion of each of four conferences (or divisions, or whatever they end up calling them), and if teams were added, it would stand to reason that the fourth and fifth seeds in each conference would play a series (or maybe a single game?) to determine who plays the No. 1 seed.
The benefits of such a system?
• More playoff teams = more playoff games = more money.
• It could potentially mean increased interest late in the season in a city whose team would otherwise have failed to make the playoffs. It also gives a team incentive to finish third as opposed to fourth, to avoid the extra round.
• It would also provide incentive for a team to finish as the No. 1 seed, since it would be able to rest while its opponent has to battle to stay alive.
And the concerns about such a system?
• It would mean two-thirds (!) of the league would qualify for the playoffs.
• It might add interest late in the season in certain cities, but it further diminishes the regular season in a sport where that's already something of an issue.
But there's something else the league needs to consider. As it is, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are particularly chaotic and unpredictable. Teams that had strong regular seasons are routinely upset as the difference between higher seeds and lower seeds isn't always that great. (Last year, for instance, a No. 8 seed faced a No. 6 seed in the Finals.) Adding a play-in game stacks the deck a bit more in the favor of the conference's top seeds: In theory, it should give some of the better teams a chance at moving on, and even if the play-in winner advances, it'll be that much more tired for its next opponent, which again puts it at something of a disadvantage.
Again, Kypreos reported that this is something that was discussed internally and wasn't brought up in negotiations, which means it won't necessarily be part of the next CBA when it's eventually finalized. But if something like this were to proceed, in addition to figuring out how many playoff teams is too many playoff teams, and trying to balance the relative importance of the playoffs and regular season, and determining how much additional money such a change could bring in, the league needs to decide whether it wants to dial back the randomness of the playoffs, if only just a little, and give an advantage to the top seeds. The upsets would be even more dramatic in those cases, but they might not be quite as common. Which might be what the league wants anyway.