Why the NHL Should, and Should Not, Have a “Play-In” Tournament

Nathan MacKinnon #29, Colorado Avalanche Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Nathan MacKinnon #29, Colorado Avalanche Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

While the NHL has a few more games before it ends its regular season, the NBA playoffs are all set to begin. Before we get to the “real” NBA playoffs there’s the NBA play-in tournament.

For those who don’t follow what happens on the hardwood, eight teams in each NBA conference make the playoffs. The teams in first to sixth place in each conference automatically make the playoffs, while the teams in sixth to tenth place play in the “play in” tournament.

Depending on your seeding, the play-in tournament can either be a “win one game and you’re in” or a double-elimination scenario for those final two playoff spots. The league implemented it in the shortened 2020-2021 season and liked it so much that it made it a permanent fixture.

It keeps more teams playing meaningful games as the season goes on. Plus, the league loves the extra revenue.

The NHL having a “play-in” tournament could have multiple benefits.

Gary Bettman used to work for the NBA and since becoming NHL commissioner has borrowed many ideas from his basketball counterparts.

Whether or not the NHL would adopt a “play-in” for the final few playoff spots has been a topic of conversation among hockey fans. Bettman does not seem on board, according to Pierre LeBrun.

In James O’Brien’s latest NHL Playoff Watch piece for Yahoo Sports, he sets a compelling argument for the NHL to consider the play-in tournament.

First, O’Brien explains that the play-in games to get into the playoffs would be a more exciting and more “fair” way to determine down-to-the-wire playoff races. He does have a point, especially if said playoff races had to come down to a tiebreaker.

If this year hypothetically had a play-in tournament, Canadian fans might be the biggest beneficiaries. I won’t pretend to say we’d know exactly who would make it, but you’d have to imagine the Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators would at least be in the mix.

If there was a play-in tournament last year, the Vancouver Canucks might have made it as well.

O’Brien’s best argument is that the play-in tournament would lead to increased revenue, which could be used to raise the salary cap. That would have been a great way to make the cap go up this year or last season, however, the cap is finally expected to be raised a substantial amount next season.

Would a play-in tournament raise it even more? This would essentially raise the number of regular season games to as many as 84 (which the NHL once had). Making players play in extra games gives them the perfect argument to get even more of the revenue, since they would be the ones generating it.

On the other hand, having more games presents a risk. More games mean more chances for a player to get injured, which is one of the arguments the NHL has used against sending its players to international tournaments.

Imagine if the Pittsburgh Penguins, who very well might make the playoffs under the current rules, lost Sidney Crosby in a season-ending injury in a play-in game against the Ottawa Senators. Fans and the team might feel they lost their best player in an “unnecessary” game and won’t have him for the “real” playoffs.

Just like the NHL would be borrowing the play-in tournament idea from the NBA, I’m borrowing this next argument from the MLB.

The play-in tournament model is very similar to the Wild Card game format that Major League Baseball used from 2012-2021 (with the exception of the 2020 season). A one-game wild card was used in both leagues to determine who would get the final playoff spot in the divisional series.

MLB’s reasons for creating the Wild Card game were identical to the NBA’s reasons for creating the play-in tournament: more teams would be involved, thus making the league more competitive, and revenue would be increased.

Fans countered that with the argument that baseball is a sport built on series, not on one-game playoff rounds like the NFL. The NHL is also built on series, with each round of the playoffs being a best-of-seven series.

This last argument might be the easiest to figure out an answer for, but it seems to be the one most overlooked in these discussions. The NHL determines its playoffs, and playoff seeding, differently than the NBA.

The NBA uses the one through eight in each conference model the NHL used to use before switching to the wild card format during the 2013-2014 season.

This might be an easy fix. Just have the top four teams in each conference’s wild card race be the four teams in each play-in tournament and have the two winners be inserted in the playoff seeding as the two wild cards.

The old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. There are plenty of reasonable arguments for an NHL play-in tournament, but why overcomplicate things?

Related Story. 3 things the Seattle Kraken need for a deep playoff run. light

The NHL already tried to make the playoffs “more fair” when they created their own version of the wild card. Just because the NBA does it doesn’t mean we have to do it too.