Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It’s time to rethink the NHL playoffs

San Jose Sharks v Chicago Blackhawks - Game Four

12:12 may live in infamy for a long time for San Jose Sharks fans.

At that precise moment in the third period, Dany Heatley- #15- took a borderline slashing penalty that gave the Chicago Blackhawks- already in the ascendancy after scoring twice in the second period to erase a 2-0 San Jose advantage- a power play. The Blackhawks would score on the power play on a goal by The Great Immovable Object, Dustin Byfuglien, to gain the lead for good. Kris Versteeg would add an empty-netter to complete the 4-2 Chicago win, a victory that sends the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992 (when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were preschoolers) and a chance for their first Stanley Cup since 1961 (when coach Joel Quenneville was a preschooler).

All that drama would be well and good if it didn’t obscure the fact it completed a four game sweep, meaning that although that controversial moment was the series-decider, the Sharks’ loss can be attributed to a lot more than just that moment. This is a series where the big, slow Sharks proved the adage that in the “new” NHL, speed always wins over brawn, especially when you’ve got brawn of your own. The fact that Chicago won perhaps isn’t surprising- this one could have gone either way, especially if the Sharks had even tried their cycle game- but the fact that this series went only four games is. Even if San Jose wasn’t going to ultimately win the series, they should have given Chicago a fight after the Sharks’ own demolition of the Detroit Red Wings in Round 2, meaning that the sweep provided a disappointing end to what should have been a classic series.

Yes it’s time to write the “Here Go The San Jose Chokers Again” articles and evaluations about just what went wrong in the series; and yes it’s time to speculate on the future of Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov (both unrestricted free agents). However, coupled with the Philadelphia Flyers’ 4-1 series win over the Montreal Canadiens, the sweep continues what is becoming a disturbing historical trend in the NHL, and that’s the fact that every year we see one (if not both) Conference Finals come up lame. The series results this year mean that for a second consecutive year we’ve seen a total of nine games in the Conference Finals, after the Pittsburgh Penguins swept the Carolina Hurricanes (remember them?) and the Red Wings defeated the Blackhawks in five (with Chicago, eerily enough, winning only in Game 3).

Granted, one could surmise that this is a two-year fluke, but the numbers tell a far different story. Below is the total amount of games in each Conference Final since 1987, the year the NHL instituted the best-of-seven format throughout the entire playoffs, up to last year’s playoffs:

East

West

Total

1987

6

5

11

1988

7

5

12

1989

6

5

11

1990

4

6

10

1991

6

5

11

1992

4

4

8

1993

5

7

12

1994

7

5

12

1995

6

5

11

1996

7

6

13

1997

5

6

11

1998

6

6

12

1999

5

7

12

2000

7

7

14

2001

5

5

10

2002

6

7

13

2003

7

4

11

2004

7

6

13

2006

7

5

12

2007

5

6

11

2008

5

6

11

2009

4

5

9

2010

4

5

9

Conf. Avg

5.70

5.57

11.26

2006-10

5.00

5.40

10.40

2006-10 Avg

5.2

Average

5.63


(Table Notes: “Conf. Avg”=“Conference Final Average”)


The numbers in bold indicate the times where a Conference Final has gone at least six games, typically the standard for a “well-contested series”. As you can see in the table, there have only been five instances in the 23 post-seasons of the best-of-seven format where both Conference Finals have at least gone six games- 1996, 1998, 2000 (the only time both Conference Finals have gone seven), 2002 and 2004. Furthermore the numbers since the lockout are even more staggering, with the last Conference Final series to go seven occurring in 2006, when the Hurricanes defeated the Buffalo Sabres, and an average series length just over five games. Lastly, the overall average series length during the 1987-2010 period is less than six games, with the more troubling trend that the Western series are shorter than the Eastern series. If we add the 2010 totals, we get this:

If you’re a NHL official, you should be troubled by these numbers. No, make that “alarmed”. You see, it’s one thing if the first round- or even the second round- features a lot of short series because those series typically feature one team that’s overmatched. However, at the Conference Final, you shouldn’t be seeing short series this often. Although it’s not “the pinnacle” like the Stanley Cup Final is, the Conference Finals should still be a showcase. This is the moment where the playoffs should be heating up, because by this point you have four, battle-tested teams who have (presumably) proven their ability to win in the playoffs and thus shouldn’t be pushovers. Playoff ratings should be rising as the excitement builds, especially in the cities where the team is doing well because, in those towns, there’s a real belief that their team could win the Cup. It’s a real letdown that every year one- or even two- of those teams look more like pretenders than contenders. Thus, at this moment we should be guaranteed a six-game set (at least) in both Conference Finals, because that at least means the winners were challenged. Obviously, we can’t expect to happen every year, but a five-game stinker or a four-game sweep should be the exception not the rule, as it appears to be currently.

This can only mean one thing and that’s to rethink how the NHL conducts its playoffs. Although the best of seven series has a long history in the NHL (it was introduced in 1939), it’s clear it has outlived its usefulness as the sole determinant of playoff victors. I’ve never been a fan of the best-of-seven format anyway, because, as pure entertainment it gets a bit tedious. I mean, unless you’re a fan of any of the teams in a series, you’re never cheering for it to go four, five or even six games- you want to see Game 7. Yeah, the ride to seven games is usually fun, and from a competitive standpoint the better team is more likely to win with more chances to win, but the first six games of a series ultimately winds up feeling like a movie that’s gone on for too long and you’re sitting there waiting for its conclusion. Or as Tony Kornheiser once put it on an episode of Pardon The Interruption (discussing a series that was destined to go seven), “get to the point!”

However, I didn’t write this with an eye to attack the best-of-seven’s entertainment value (though it is a tangential issue). The real point is that the best of seven appears to have the unintended consequence of making the playoff journey too long for too many of its teams. Yes, there may be other reasons why a team who makes a Conference Final look like a deer in the headlights, but those explanations (e.g. “they were overmatched”, “they didn’t realize just how much work the playoffs are”) would be great explanations if they were one-off deals, but the fact of the matter is we see it almost all the time. The most common comment at this time of year is that the losing team “ran out of gas” (it’s one the Canadiens are sure to hear after bowing meekly to the Flyers following two straight seven game sets), and the frequency of this occurrence is troubling. You want your contenders to appear like, well, contenders and they’re not doing that if they’re bowing meekly at the Conference Final stage.

So, with the just completed Memorial Cup out of the way, I began spinning my wheels about how we can best alter the NHL tournament, and this is what I came up with:

Yes, this format would dramatically reduce the amount of playoff games (and subsequent playoff revenue) but this would be offset by the excitement- and the decisiveness- such a tournament would bring. Just like the Olympics, every game would be a war with so much literally riding on the result. The ride would be intense, quick and riveting, giving the fans that dramatic rush that comes with the quick ups and downs a tournament like this would bring. In a pounding flash the Stanley Cup Tournament would be over, and what’s left is either intense ecstasy or a crushing defeat. Makes you want to take part, does it not? If it doesn’t, just think about the most successful tournaments in sports- soccer’s World Cup and college basketball’s March Madness. Why are they successful? Because those tournaments don’t take years months to conclude, providing a result that’s incisive, decisive and quick. They don’t need the dull, slow dance of a seven game set to reach the climax- they get to it, and get to it quickly; and, like anything in sports, we all want a quick conclusion.

(Oh, I guess I forgot to mention just how much money could be made on a tournament like this...but you should have figured that out once you realized how exciting this tournament would be)

Speaking of the money, the loss of playoff games can be offset by sharing the revenues the Stanley Cup Tournament would bring, which would likely be a lot more than the present playoffs bring. I’m convinced most of the problems with the dearth of advertising revenue in the Stanley Cup Finals and similar tournaments (like the National Basketball Association Playoffs or Major League Baseball’s Fall Classic) are because their Finals don’t have the decisiveness the Super Bowl brings, and if those Finals became a single-game classic they’d become the events they should be. Plus, four rounds of best-of-seven are redundant. They worked when few teams were in the playoff because it highlighted the matchup between those two teams and that was the only matchup you needed to feature. Now, realistically, a team really only defeats four teams on its playoff journey, which isn’t indicative at all about how good they actually are- get a lucky string of matchups and you could get the Cup too. Take last year’s Penguins for instance- they had no offence (outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal), an average goalie and a yeoman cast of checkers and defenders that really didn’t strike fear into anyone. Yet they lucked out with four easy series for the Stanley Cup- one team they had beaten before (the Flyers), one absolutely brutal defensive team (the Washington Capitals), one absolutely brutal team (the Hurricanes) and a team they’d played in the Finals the year before, a team that forgot to compete once they established their 3-2 series lead (the Wings). Once they played a team that was competent defensively and competently coached (the Canadiens) they were schooled. I understand this assessment is more of a matter of opinion than conclusive research, but it should highlight that winning in the playoffs really does come down to who you play as much as it is to how you play- get a bad matchup and your dream is over, which sure isn’t a great way to settle a score. At least with this round robin format the Stanley Cup winner still has to show its superiority over the other teams in the tournament, since they at least play the other teams once (and likely had to beat them to get to where they are).

You could get adventurous and invite the European winner to this tournament (creating a seven team tournament, or you could realign the NHL into five divisions and maintain the six-team format) but that’s a debate for another day. The point today is that the NHL’s concluding hours should be more decisive than it is currently, and it can do that by scrapping the four rounds of best-of-seven tedium and reverting to something more exciting, like the Memorial Cup-style Stanley Cup Tournament. This way the NHL championship is quick and decisive, being guaranteed to be more exciting than the present format is; which, in turn, increases its profitability. The best-of-seven format had a purpose in its heyday when only two teams made the playoffs- now, with 16, it’s outlived its usefulness, creating arbitrary champions that only got there because of their favourable matchups and needlessly extending the season. At least with the round robin the team that wins at least shows a greater sense of dominance because they’ve at least played every other team at least once (and likely had to beat them to get them to where they are); and at the very least we’re left with a Final that’s conclusive and decisive- and quick.

If that’s not enough, then just look at it this way- at least this means our playoffs will be over before June; and that’s something we can all agree on.

-DG


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-DG

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