Stanley Cup Playoffs: Would a 22-team bracket actually work?

Due to the NHL season being indefinitely suspended due to COVID-19, there are several options on the table. One of them involves having 22 teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

According to Elliotte Friedman, there is a possibility that, if the season were to continue at a later date, then the season would skip right into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If that were the case, and they kept their usual playoff seeding, teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Panthers, who are fighting for a wild-card spot with Carolina and Columbus, would get unfairly kept out of playoff contention.

So Friedman also talked about a 22-team playoff bracket. But how exactly would that work?

Seeding through Divisions

Some ideas include keeping the same idea of the top three teams automatically making the playoffs but adding five wild-card teams, as opposed to two. If that were the case, due to the odd number of teams, the top-seed would need a bye week. That leaves five non-wild-card teams and five wild-card teams. With that set-up, the Bruins would get the bye in the Eastern Conference.

Staying in the east, the Capitals are the one-seed, so they would take the 5th wild-card. Then it would be Tampa versus the 4th wild-card, all the way down the list. Here would be the match-ups (western conference included) through rounds 1 and 2:

Round 1 – Eastern Conference

  • M1 Washington v. WC5 Florida
  • M2 Philadelphia v. WC3 New York Islanders
  • M3 Pittsburgh v. WC2 Columbus
  • A1 Boston BYE WEEK
  • A2 Tampa Bay v. WC4 New York Rangers
  • A3 Toronto v. WC1 Carolina

Round 1 – Western Conference

  • P1 Vegas v. WC5 Arizona
  • P2 Edmonton v. WC3 Vancouver
  • P3 Calgary v. WC1 Winnipeg
  • C1 St Louis BYE WEEK
  • C2 Colorado v. WC4 Minnesota
  • C3 Dallas v. WC2 Nashville

Round 2

  • WSH/FLA v. PHI/NYI
  • BOS v. TOR/CAR
  • TB/NYR v. PIT/CBJ
  • VGK/ARI v. EDM/VAN
  • STL v. CGY/WPG
  • COL/MIN v. DAL/NSH

As is clearly evidenced by the round two matchups, this seeding could work, but it would end up being a three-team conference final, which wouldn’t make any sense at all. What the NHL could do is keep the idea of a 22-team seeding, but instead have the five wild-card teams in each conference be placed in a round-robin to decide who the top-two teams among them would be, then carry on with the usual seeding.

But again, if there were time constraints that forced the NHL to go straight into the playoffs, then there wouldn’t be time for a round-robin. If there was time for the round-robin, then wouldn’t they just finish the regular season with that time instead?

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22-team Cross-Conference Playoff Seeding

After delving into several other ideas, the most realistic option, or at least the one that would open the door to working smoothly, with no three-team battle, would be to have the top-22 teams in the league face against each other, including cross-conference matches. Yes, there are travel concerns, but the best way to combat that is to limit the amount of travel.

How would you do this? Take an idea from the MLB and do different series lengths based on the round. For example, round one could be single elimination, round two could be best-of-three, rounds three and four could be best-of-five, and the Stanley Cup Finals could go back to the traditional best-of-seven.

Here’s how the seedings would work: Boston is the top team in the league, and they get a bye through the first three rounds. St. Louis, being the second-seed, would get a bye through the first 2 rounds. The third-seed (Colorado) would then face the 22nd seed, and this pattern would go down the list. Here are the matchups if the NHL had this set-up.

  • 3. Colorado v. 22. Arizona
  • 4. Tampa Bay v. 21. Minnesota
  • 5. Washington v. 20. Vancouver
  • 6. Philadelphia v. 19. Nashville
  • 7. Pittsburgh v. 18. Florida
  • 8. Vegas v. 17. Calgary
  • 9. Edmonton v. 16. New York Rangers
  • 10. Dallas v. 15. Winnipeg
  • 11. Carolina v. 14. New York Islanders
  • 12. Toronto v. 13. Columbus

The second-round would be roughly something like this, with a best-of-three format (top-seed teams get games 1 and 2 at home to limit the possibility of long-distance travel):

  • 1. Boston BYE
  • 2. St Louis BYE
  • 3rd highest seed remaining v. lowest seed remaining
  • 4th highest v. 2nd lowest
  • 5th highest v. 3rd lowest
  • 6th highest v. 4th lowest
  • 7th highest v. 5th lowest

The third round would then feature St. Louis, with a best-of-five format (top-seed teams get games 1 through 3 at home to limit possible long-distance travel):

  • 1. Boston BYE
  • 2. St Louis v. Lowest seed remaining
  • 3rd highest seed remaining v. 2nd lowest
  • 4th highest v. 3rd lowest

The fourth round would then feature Boston, with a best-of-five format again (top-seed team get games 1,2, and 5 at home, giving them an advantage, but guarantee’s travel):

  • 1. Boston v. Lowest seed remaining
  • 2nd highest seed remaining v. 2nd lowest

This is still a very flawed format, and it’s very obvious why. For hockey fans, single-elimination is heart-breaking. The Detroit Red Wings have won games from time-to-time this season, so the chances of the 22nd seed Coyotes to upset the third-seed Avalanche is very possible in a single-elimination round. However, everyone loves an underdog story, so it could be a cool twist.

As for the NHL, a single-elimination round would hurt them financially. For one, the fewer games there are, the less money they make. That said, having a single-elimination round can diminish the possibility of an $84 to $88 million salary cap, and no team wants to miss out on having that high of a ceiling if it hasn’t already been impacted by the suspension to the season.

However, with the formatting set up the way it is, it rewards the top-seed teams with a guaranteed home game in possible elimination games through the first three rounds is a huge way to limit travel costs and concerns.

For example, having the Bruins travel back and forth between Boston and Vancouver, if that ends up as a matchup, in the traditional best-of-seven format, the travel would hurt both teams and the costs would be very high, especially if it goes to the full seven games.

This set-up is far from possibility, but there’s no doubt it’s an intriguing proposition to be considered at this time. The fact that Elliotte Friedman floated the idea out there in an article suggests that the NHL is already looking into ways that 22-team playoffs could work.

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What do you guys think? Will a 22-team playoff format work? Would you be all for cross-conference playoff matchups? Leave a comment if you have any ideas on how the NHL will proceed and if the 22-team bracket should be considered!

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