The Stanley Cup Playoffs prove the NHL regular season is too long

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 16: Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning react after Seth Jones #3 of the Columbus Blue Jackets scores a goal in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, 2019 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Tampa Bay 7-3 to win the series 4-0. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 16: Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning react after Seth Jones #3 of the Columbus Blue Jackets scores a goal in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, 2019 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Tampa Bay 7-3 to win the series 4-0. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

With incredible underdog stories and unbelievable in-season turnarounds, this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs prove that the NHL regular season is too long.

Early May to mid-June is one of the best times of the year for sports fans. Both the NHL and NBA playoffs are well underway at this point. Naturally, comparisons arise about which postseason is better – the Stanley Cup Playoffs or the NBA playoffs.

For pretty much anybody who has watched any hockey ever, the answer to that question is clear. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs are tremendous, featuring feats of strength, skill and will that one would be hard-pressed to find in any other sports tournament.

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Part of what makes these playoffs so compelling is the parity built into the sport itself. Any team can win on any given day with a hot goaltender and a little bit of puck luck. There are relatively few games or series that get out of hand in favor of one team.

This means that the NHL playoffs are almost guaranteed to have a great storyline, whether that be a stunning upset (such as Montreal-Washington in 2010) or a Cinderella run (such as Vegas last year). No other North American sport sees this occur with the frequency that hockey does.

However, even these historical patterns cannot explain the insanity of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The number of unprecedented outcomes go beyond simply great storylines, and instead point to a systemic issue with the NHL itself.

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Let’s start with a result that undoubtedly brought a lot of hockey fans joy this spring – the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning getting absolutely embarrassed in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I doubt there was anybody outside of Tampa Bay who was cheering for the Lightning, so there were likely few people complaining when they were swept by a team that made the playoffs on the second-last day of the regular season.

Similarly, the Carolina Hurricanes and their Storm Surge celebrations won the hearts of fans around the continent. There were likely few tears shed for the elimination of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

Overall, the first round saw all four division winners eliminated by wild-card teams for the first time in NHL history, while teams such as the Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins were swept by largely overlooked opposition. And yet, this is not the story of the 2018-19 season.

Regardless of what happens in the Stanley Cup Final, but especially if they win, this year has belonged to the St. Louis Blues. A team with a tortured history, who most had left for dead by January, has authored one of the most remarkable sports turnarounds in recent memory.

When the calendar turned to 2019, at which point the Blues were sitting in the basement of the NHL. Historically, it has been extremely difficult for teams outside of the playoff picture at Thanksgiving to make the postseason, let alone last place on New Year’s Day.

But with Jordan Binnington playing like the second coming of Terry Sawchuk, as well as a general upturn in production from most of the squad, the Blues soon stormed back into the Central Division race, taking the third seed as the season came to an end.

Since then, they have continued to thrive, dispatching of the favored Winnipeg Jets in 6, then the Dallas Stars in a hard-fought seven-game series, and finally the San Jose Sharks in 6. With that, they clinched their first trip back to the finals in nearly 50 years.

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It is not surprising to me that fans have mostly welcomed these developments – everybody loves a David or a Cinderella. But at some point, such results beg the question: does the regular season matter?

I will be the first to point out that I am kind of a hypocrite for asking this question when I recently defended the divisional playoff system from similar criticisms.

"Additionally, the argument that this format does not reward the best regular season teams is bogus. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Whether it’s in the first round or the Stanley Cup Final, it really does not make a difference.I think one of the reasons this has become such an issue is because fans have put such an emphasis on when a team is eliminated. But if the Maple Leafs lose to the Bruins in the first round instead of the second or third round, does it really make you happier as a fan?The ultimate goal of the playoffs is to win the Stanley Cup. This means every year, there is one team that is successful, and thirty teams that are not. That is the ugly beauty of professional sports and especially of the NHL."

I should clarify, then, that my complaint is not so much that the Blues are in the finals, or that the Capitals and Lightning were eliminated so early. I firmly believe that the best teams have won each series in the playoffs so far.

My issue is that nothing that basically nothing that happened this year before January matters at all. The finalists, the Blues and Boston Bruins, were two of the best teams in 2019. If the season started on January 1st, we likely see the same finals matchup.

Same with the division winners being eliminated. Teams get tired after playing at a high level all season, hence the Lightning, Capitals, Flames, and Predators all looking slow and disinterested when it mattered this spring. This is not an excuse for their losses but rather an explanation.

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The fact of the matter is that teams have little incentive to play at a high level all season long because as the Blues prove, a great half of a season can make up for an awful half. If not every game matters, why even watch the NHL before February?

I am by no means the only person to make this argument. Writers have been calling for a shorter NHL regular season for years, and the results of this year’s playoffs have led to the regular season being called “irrelevant,” perhaps commissioner Gary Bettman’s greatest fear.

What is the solution, then? How can the NHL prevent burnout and make the regular season matter more without losing the unpredictability and parity that makes its postseason must-watch television?

The forthcoming expansion affords a wonderful opportunity for the league to overhaul the regular season structure. If teams play Seattle with a similar pattern as currently exists, each team would play 84 games. The NHLPA may not be happy to be playing two extra games without pay raises.

Instead, here is my solution. Since the playoff format is division-based, why not make the regular season more division-based as well? Instead of non-divisional conference opponents playing each other three times a year, cut this to the twice a year non-conference opponents play each other.

Then, schedule divisional opponents to play each other three times a year. This adds up to a total of 69 games per team per season. If you want a round number, have two divisional opponents play a fourth time in the year, for a total of a 70 game regular season.

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Cutting 12 games from the season is equivalent to nearly a month, which could do wonders. For one, the season could either start or end earlier, which would allow players and fans to get some more rest from the grind, leading to higher-quality hockey later in the season.

In addition, a shorter regular season would mean that every game matters proportionally more. It becomes much less likely that a team can tank half of the season and be fine, despite how inspiring we all find the Blues’ run to be.

Of course, the NHL itself would likely have an aneurysm at the idea of losing 12 games (likely six home games) worth of revenue for each team. But fear not, owners: I have some suggestions to account for this as well.

With the extra time, the league could bring back tournaments such as the World Cup of Hockey, or the proposed Ryder Cup series, without cutting too much into player rest time. These games would likely bring in more money than the average Tuesday night Panthers-Coyotes match.

Better yet, the extra time could be used to add another round to the playoffs as well as expand the number of teams playing postseason hockey. While I am not the biggest fan of so many teams in the playoffs, even more playoff hockey revenue would undoubtedly be of interest to the NHL.

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The bottom line is that there are many reasons to shorten the NHL regular season that should excite fans, players, owners, officials and everybody else connected with the league. It may even create new fans who had been turned off by the excessively long season in the past.

I love hockey, and I would never advocate for less of it unless I believed it was the best course of action for the sport, and I really do. As much as we all love parity, upsets and the like, at some point, the NHL needs a dynasty.

The NBA is only growing in popularity despite the recent dominance of the Golden State Warriors. With sports such as the NFL and MLB slowing in terms of growth, the NHL has the opportunity to seize some momentum. Cutting down the regular season could be the first step to doing so.

What do you think? Should the NHL regular season be shorter than it currently is? What season length do you think is just right? Join the conversation below, and enjoy the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs!