What if NHL playoff teams picked their opponents?
As we await word on the fate of the 2020-21 NHL season, theScore is revisiting innovative ideas from different corners of the hockey world. Consider this four-part series food for thought during a most unusual offseason. (Part 1 is about replacing the draft lottery. Parts 3 and 4 will arrive Monday and Tuesday, respectively.)
Picture this: It's Sunday, April 7, 2019, hours removed from the NHL regular season and three days before playoff action begins. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who laid waste to the competition for the past six months - winning 62 of 82 games - have earned the right to choose their first-round opponent in the Eastern Conference. That pick is due to the league office in advance of a selection show airing Sunday night on national TV.
It's a gigantic decision that could smooth their path through the first round. Or it could blow up in their face.
Tampa Bay could tap the Columbus Blue Jackets, who recorded the fewest points among East playoff clubs. Or perhaps the Lightning will pick the Carolina Hurricanes, who finished with just one extra point and don't boast a true No. 1 goalie. And then, there are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are, essentially, Lightning Light.
The Lightning were 3-0 in the regular season against both Columbus and Carolina and 3-1 against Toronto, a division rival. Now they get to pick their poison.
In reality, the 2018-19 Lightning were automatically paired with the wild-card Blue Jackets, who went on to sweep Tampa Bay. Maybe the Hurricanes or Maple Leafs would have made quick work of the Lightning, too. But that's not the point.
What matters is that such a decision would add a layer of suspense and intrigue to the NHL campaign. The top regular-season team each year claims the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage for the duration of its playoff run. What if that club also had an influence on the first-round matchups?
This hypothetical has played out at lower levels of hockey. Teams in the ICE Hockey League of Austria have been choosing opponents since the 2012-13 postseason in its "Playoff Pick." The Southern Professional Hockey League did something similar - called the "Challenge Round" - in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 postseasons.
"If you're the NHL and you want people to obsessively talk about you, have some drama," former SPHL president Jim Combs said in a recent interview.
In the SPHL's case, the regular-season points leader picked its opponent from a pool of four teams that finished fifth through eighth in the standings for a best-of-three series. The second and third seeds in the 10-team, division-free league followed suit, leaving the fourth-place club to link up with the remaining playoff contender. (Teams were reseeded in the second round and paired according to their regular-season point totals.)
The SPHL - which introduced three-on-three overtime in 2004, a decade before the NHL did - is a rung below the ECHL on the North American pro hockey ladder. Its franchises are clustered in the United States' Midwest and Southeast, in places like Huntsville, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida; and Peoria, Illinois. Therefore, travel factored into the decision-making process for teams tasked with choosing a playoff foe. The quality of the opponent, health of rosters, and recent performance were other variables commonly considered.
In the first year of Combs' experiment, the league aired an event called the Challenge Round Selection Show. Former NHLer Terry Crisp and Alabama football radio voice Eli Gold co-hosted, and, after a live audience rained boos on Combs a la Gary Bettman, the president revealed each pick.
If it sounds gimmicky, that's because it was. But there was also an undeniable appeal to the whole gambit, and Combs - who left the SPHL in 2018 to pursue other opportunities - remains bullish on the idea.
"In the NHL, we already know who is going to play who. There's no point in talking about who's going to match up with who (as the regular season winds down) because it's already set by the standings," Combs said. "Well, with the Challenge Round, we put the onus on those top teams to pick who they think they can beat.
"Sometimes the one-seed doesn't want to touch the eight-seed because eight could have been terrible for the last two months but they got their best players back recently, are on a hot streak, winning lots over the last three weeks, and really have a lot of momentum coming into the playoffs. Now, what do they do?"
Combs borrowed the idea from former NHL linesman and referee Lyle Seitz, who since 2011 has been the director of hockey operations for ICE. Seitz reports parallel benefits to the Challenge Round in his loop's Playoff Pick format, including heightened intensity in the regular season as teams jockey for position throughout the standings, great publicity for the postseason through a widely watched TV spectacle, bulletin-board material for the lower-end teams, and an extra incentive and reward for the elite clubs.
"The owners and players mostly like it," Seitz said. "The major complaints I get are from the coaches. It's not as if they don't like the idea, it's just that all the pressure's on them."
Therein lies the fundamental problem with the pick-your-opponent proposal, at least from the NHL's perspective. It's often dismissed as "bush league," or something below the standards of the world's top association. So, who among the owners, managers, coaches, and players would ever champion such an outside-the-box concept?
"It might be great for (the SPHL), but it's not something I'd encourage our league to do, and I couldn't see it ever happening," Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said in 2018.
"I don't like it," Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told Craig Custance of The Athletic in March. "I like to play who you're supposed to play. You play a whole season to get your spot in the standings and you play it out. I imagine, if you're picking someone it'll be a little motivation to the team you're picking, 'Oh really? You're picking us?'"
MacLellan raises a valid point. There's nothing wrong with the NHL playoffs' level of entertainment. The on-ice product sells itself year after year, sans gimmicks. And as the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The NHL held a fantasy draft ahead of the annual All-Star Weekend for five years from 2011 through 2015, during which captains chose their teammates for the weekend. By all accounts, it went well in terms of production and buzz. A similar show before the playoffs would be an entirely different beast, however, with the stakes infinitely higher and tone much more serious.
"The fans liked it. The coaches hated it. It's a great idea until you pick a fight with someone," Combs said, laughing at the memory of the SPHL's experiment. "My favorite part about being involved in the Challenge Round was that I administered it, was involved in the show, but there was no pressure on me. I didn't have to pick an opponent, no one picked me."
The selection show would be somewhat familiar to NHL fans, too. It would essentially serve as the draft lottery on steroids. Instead of Bill Daly flipping over a giant card to reveal who has the first overall pick, the NHL's deputy commissioner would unveil exactly how Playoff Team X feels about Playoff Team Y, manufacturing hysteria in multiple markets. The drama, then, would begin prior to Game 1 puck drop, not at some point during the series.
Keith Yandle is in favor of the concept, though the Florida Panthers defenseman admitted last year he's probably in the minority. Combs said one NHL team absolutely loved the idea when the SPHL first unveiled its plans in 2017. An executive told him the club's hockey operations staff debated the merits of potential opponents for hours on end.
There's a case to be made that the 2020-21 NHL season would be an ideal time to introduce the pick-your-opponent concept, as it will be a shortened campaign. TV ratings were down for the 24-team bubbled postseason, and this twist, which Major League Baseball has also discussed, would spice up the schedule. Let's not forget, changing the playoff format is not without precedent in the NHL.
"Is it a good thing? I would say 100%," Seitz said. "Would the NHL ever do it? I would say no. Because they follow traditions."
John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer.
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