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NHL has no appetite to expand playoffs beyond its 16-team tournament for the Stanley Cup

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LA Post: NHL has no appetite to expand playoffs beyond its 16-team tournament for the Stanley Cup
April 17, 2024
STEPHEN WHYNO - AP

Sixteen teams, each one needing to win 16 games over four rounds of best-of-seven series to lift the Stanley Cup, has been the way the NHL decides its champion for nearly four decades. That isn't changing any time soon.

The NHL is the only one of the major four North American professional sports leagues not to expand its playoffs in recent years. It is content with the current format and isn't looking to add more teams, a play-in round or anything else amid plenty of discussion about doing so.

"We’re not giving any thought to expanding the playoffs," Commissioner Gary Bettman said in advance of the playoffs, which begin Saturday. “We have no interest in it. What we have is working very well. When you look at how our playoffs play out, the number of six- and seven-game series, the competitiveness of it, nothing in anybody else’s playoffs rivals that.”

There is an added benefit, Bettman said: It makes the regular season more meaningful. A handful of players who have won the Cup in recent years agreed that they prefer the status quo.

“You like what you know, I feel like,” said Washington's Trevor van Riemsdyk, who won the Cup with Chicago in 2015. “It keeps the importance of the regular season and all that stuff in the right place. I think 82 games is plenty of time, ample time, to make it.”

It has been that way since 1987, and in that era 16 of the league's 21 teams qualified for the playoffs. Now the league has 32 teams and half of them make the cut.

“Where we’re at right now at the NHL, I think we’re in a good spot,” said Pittsburgh's Reilly Smith, who won with the Golden Knights last year. “There’s a lot of parity in the league, but 16 teams is plenty.”

Smith thinks the playoffs are tough enough already, arguably the most physically taxing and grueling route to a title in sports, and adding games would put it over the edge.

If more games is the goal, hockey already has that. Over the past decade, over two-thirds of the 150 playoff series (67.3%) have gone to a sixth or deciding seventh game, compared to just over half (54%) in the NBA, which is in its third season with a four team per conference play-in tournament.

The NFL went from 12 to 14 playoff teams starting in 2020, and two years later Major League Baseball expanded to 12 teams, with six division winners and six wild cards making it.

Boston's Kevin Shattenkirk, who won the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2020, pointed to the end of this regular season as another reason playoff expansion isn't needed — particularly in the Eastern Conference where the Capitals, New York Islanders and others were essentially playing play-in games to make it.

“I feel like naturally our situation kind of creates that,” Shattenkirk said. “It’s not as heavy at the top as it is in basketball, I think. I think that’s why we don’t really need it.”

He and others would like to see the NHL go back to a 1 to 8 seed by conference setup, rather than the current divisional format designed to fuel rivalries and create a competitive first round, sometimes at the expense of the best teams facing off later in the playoffs.

Doing that could pave the way for any potential playoff expansion, which Pittsburgh's Lars Eller thinks would be prudent if the league expands beyond 32 clubs.

“If you’re adding more teams to the league at this point, I would think I would be open to have some sort of play-in — the top 20 or something like 14 to 20 play for spots or something like that,” said Eller, who won the Cup with Washington in 2018. "It’s OK as is. Half the teams get in. But if you’re adding more than that, it feels like there should be a few more spots."

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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