PITTSBURGH — First, let’s dispense with the notion that 24 teams is unwieldy, unfair, untenable or all of the above.
The NHL is strongly considering a 24-team playoff, which means 80% of the member clubs would be involved. Sounds like a lot — until you realize that when the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in 1991, a full 76% of the teams (16 of 21) made the playoffs.
When they won it in ’92, it was 73% (16 of 22).
It was pretty hard to miss the playoffs for teams in the Original Six, too. Four of six made it every year. After that, it was eight of 12. And so on.
So this isn’t new.
It’s not perfect, either. I’ll grant you that. The Montreal Canadiens, more than any potential qualifier, are a stretch — and they would be the Penguins’ “play-in,” or opening-round opponent by the model now gaining momentum.
When the season was suspended in early March, the Canadiens were 10 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games left.
They had played more games than any of the four teams they were chasing and had lost 10 of their previous 14. They had almost no chance of qualifying.
But the league and its players face a series of difficult questions regarding a season restart…
— Should they finish the regular season?
For some teams, 15% of their games remain unplayed. That’s a lot. But with a potentially small window ahead, the NHL needs to get right to it. Start the playoffs.
— How many teams should qualify?
Well, the league could go by points percentage and take the usual 16, and even include a baseball-style play-in game for teams on the bubble. That would be fabulous.
But in order to create more revenue — more eyeballs on televisions — the NHL clearly wants more teams and certain markets (New York, Chicago, Montreal) involved. Who could blame them for that?
— What is the best series format?
The “play-in” round, featuring seeds 5-12 in each conference, is the stickler here. Best-of-three seems too short, although I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Best-of-five somewhat minimizes the chance of a hot goalie (Carey Price?) stealing a series.
After that, it’s go time — best-of-sevens all the way — and may the best team win. No asterisks for the winner or the losers.
The chase to the Cup is the ultimate survive-and-advance in pro sports. It’s not about the obstacles themselves. Could be anything. It’s about who can smash them and move on.
Some years that means adapting to a shortened season, like when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2013 after a 48-game, lockout-shortened season that started in late January.
It might mean losing your starting goalie, having no backup and using a 44-year-old coach who never played goal to win a game, like the 1928 New York Rangers (and they used minor league goalies to win the next three games).
The 1938 Chicago Blackhawks were in a similar situation and used a bartender in goal (at least he was used to dealing with shots).
It might mean overcoming a catastrophic injury or playing in a thick indoor fog, the way the Philadelphia Flyers did in Buffalo in 1975.
It might mean playing the best team in the league in the first or second round because of a nonsensical playoff format, which has happened numerous times.
And it might mean adjusting to a three-month layoff in the midst of a pandemic and playing without fans.
The parameters change. The prize does not. The format itself is immaterial.
Any format beats not awarding the Cup, which the NHL was guilty of as recently as 2005, on account of a lockout.
As for the Penguins, you’d have to like their chances, should this postseason come to pass (far from a sure thing). They have the kind of coaching and organizational continuity that could prove decisive in this kind of environment.
They’d have Jake Guentzel back in the lineup.
Their 30-something stars would be (extremely) well-rested, and they have the advantage of two capable goaltenders.
And, if the Penguins survive Price in the play-in round and the seedings hold, the Flyers would be waiting in Round 2.
What could be better than that?