21 May 2010

How to improve the Stanley Cup

I love watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's hard to predict what will happen from from one game to the next, or even from one series to the next.  This year, I'm enjoying the bonus of seeing my two favorite NHL teams, the Blackhawks and Sharks, play for a spot in this year's Final.  Unfortunately, based on TV ratings, I would seem to be in the minority. There are a couple of good reasons for this:
  1. The playoffs run too long.  Anyone else think that it's wrong to have a winter-sport season running almost up to the summer solstice?  The NHL does itself no favors by having its marquee event run directly against the the NBA Finals -- and on even-numbered years, possibly the FIFA World Cup or the Summer Olympics.
  2. Results in the Stanley Cup Playoffs bear little resemblance to the regular season on which it depends.  Since the NHL adopted the current playoff format in 1999, 11 teams have reached the semi-final stage as a 6 seed or lower.  Four of those 11 teams went on to the Finals.  [By contrast, in the same period, only four teams seeded worse than 3 have reached the NBA semi-final stage.  One of those is this year's Suns, a 4 seed.  The other, 1999 Knicks, reached the Finals as an 8 seed... as a result of that year's lockout.]
Happily there's an easy way to fix these, and it takes only one step.

The NHL should get rid of the postseason.

Qualifying can stay the same: the top eight teams in each conference would still go the the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Instead of late April, however, the tournament whouldn't start until October.  Yes, the next regular season will be underway, but that's actually the point.  The first round can run from October through December; the second, in January and February; and the semifinals, in March and April.

To make room for the extra games, the NHL should extend the regular season.  Instead of the third weekend of April, have the regular season run until the second weekend in May.  By that time, the Stanley Cup Final series would be underway.  The whole thing, regular season and Cup Final, can wrap up well before Memorial Day.

For the NHL, I see only benefits:
  • Fans will like the shorter season.
  • They can enjoy the Stanley Cup without the increasingly irrelevant distraction that seeding currently presents.
  • The President's Cup, presented to the team with the best regular-season record, becomes meaningful.
  • Best of all, instead of the NBA Finals, the World Cup and possibly the Summer Olympics, the Stanley Cup Final won't have to compete with anything more serious than the (single-day) Champions League Final.  (Interleage baseball?  Brother, please!)
Keep the Stanley Cup -- but dump the postseason!

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