There’s nothing like playoff hockey.
The speed and physicality ramp up, players push themselves to the edge of their abilities, the emotion and passion lead to heated rivalries, and the thrills of hard-fought games going to overtime make your heart pound out of your chest — what else could possibly compare?
Unfortunately, for half of the NHL, there is literally nothing like playoff hockey this season. Fans of 16 of the 32 teams in the NHL won’t be watching their team play a single minute of the playoffs, missing out on the best part of hockey.
That’s not ideal, either for fans of those teams or for the league, which risks losing the attention of fans of teams who miss the playoffs, especially if those teams miss the playoffs for multiple seasons. That's especially true for a league like the NHL, which prizes playoff performances above any other. There's a reason why the Stanley Cup is valued so highly while the Presidents' Trophy — presented to the team with the best regular-season record in the NHL — is an afterthought.
Those are just a few reasons why the NHL should allow more teams to qualify for the playoffs.
But the biggest reason is tradition.
Tradition might not be the expected argument for expanding the playoffs — instead, traditionalists might typically resist adding teams to the playoffs, suggesting it lessens the importance of the regular season or makes it too easy for lesser teams to qualify. But the truth is that the NHL has historically allowed a much higher percentage of its teams to make the playoffs.
Expansion from the Original Six meant expanded playoffs
For the vast majority of its history, more than half of the teams in the NHL made the playoffs — a lot more than half.
In the Original Six era, four of the league’s six teams made the postseason — a simple semifinal and final format. But as the league added new teams, it didn’t stick with just four teams making the playoffs. As the NHL expanded, the playoffs expanded with it.
It started in 1967, when six new teams were added, doubling the size of the NHL. The playoffs likewise doubled, with 8 of the 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs. In an interesting twist, all six expansion teams were placed in one division, with four of the six new teams making the playoffs, even though all four finished the season with fewer points than the Toronto Maple Leafs, who missed the playoffs in the Original Six division.
In 1970, the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL, but the playoffs remained at 8 teams. Absurdly, the Canucks were placed in a reorganized East Division, with five of the six Original Six teams, so had a much tougher time making the playoffs than the 1967 expansion teams.
Likewise, when the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames joined the NHL in 1972, the playoffs remained at 8 of 16 teams. When the league expanded to 18 teams in 1974 with the addition of the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts, however, the NHL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams.
The NHL could have justified staying at 8 of 18 teams making the playoffs because it’s a much easier format. Eight teams in the quarterfinals divide neatly into four teams in the semifinals, then two teams in the final.
Instead, the NHL created a brand new format. Six teams from each conference made the playoffs, with the winners of each of the league’s four divisions getting a bye to the quarterfinals. The remaining eight teams in the league played a best-of-three series to qualify for the quarterfinals, after which the teams were re-seeded.
The upshot is that just six teams missed the playoffs. When the league briefly contracted to 17 teams when the Cleveland Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars, just five teams missed the playoffs.
In the 80's, only five teams missed the playoffs each season
The next expansion came in 1979, when four teams from the WHA joined the NHL. The expansion to 21 teams again led to expanded playoffs.
Starting in the 1979-80 season, 16 teams made the playoffs. Again, just five teams didn’t qualify for the playoffs, with 76.1% of the league’s teams playing in the postseason.
This continued for over a decade. 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs every year. The odds of a fan’s favourite team making the playoffs were extremely good — even if they missed one year, it was easy to hope that they could turn it around the next.
When the NHL began expanding again in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, however, the playoffs remained the same. While there were changes to how teams were seeded and the realignment of divisions and conferences, just 16 teams made the playoffs every season.
That means the odds of a fan’s favourite team missing the playoffs grew with every team added to the league.
With the addition of the San Jose Sharks in 1991, six teams missed the playoffs. The Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 made it so eight teams missed the playoffs and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers made it ten in 1993. A few years later, the addition of the Nashville Predators in 1998 and Atlanta Thrashers in 1999 made it so 12 teams missed the playoffs, then the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild made it 14 teams out of the playoffs in 2000.
Finally, with the recent additions of the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken to the NHL, a whopping 16 teams miss the playoffs every season.
For over a decade, more than 3/4ths of the NHL made the playoffs and the majority of NHL history saw at least 2/3rds of the league make the playoffs. So, why does just 50% of the NHL make the playoffs now? Why wasn’t the expansion of the 90’s and 2000’s matched by an expansion of the playoffs?
Why 24 teams should make the playoffs
If the NHL expanded the playoffs to a similar percentage of teams that made the playoffs in the 80’s, that would be 24 out of 32 teams making the playoffs.
The 12-team playoffs of the 70’s already provides a template for how a 24-team playoffs could work. With two conferences and four divisions, the top two teams in each division could get a bye to the second round, with the remaining 8 teams in each conference playing a series — say, best-of-five — to join them.
Adding eight teams to the playoffs certainly seems radical, but it would actually just be getting back to where the playoffs were a few decades ago — very traditional. Besides, the NHL already had a 24-team playoff in the 2020 bubble because of COVID-19 and it produced some exciting and unexpected results, with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, and Arizona Coyotes all pulling off upsets.
This format would mean that finishing first or second in your division would become immensely important, making even late-season regular-season games vital and exciting for the top teams. Meanwhile, playoff races would go late into the season, with teams making late pushes like the Canucks this season actually having a chance to get in.
NBA and MLB have both expanded their playoff format
Maybe adding that many teams is a step too far. The NHL could instead take a page from two other major North American sports to implement a smaller change. Both basketball and baseball have expanded their playoff format over the last two years.
The NBA introduced play-in games in 2020. Under the current format, the top-six teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs, then the 7th to 10th-ranked teams have an abbreviated play-in tournament. The 7th and 8th-ranked teams have an advantage: they first face each other, with the winner moving on to the playoffs. The winner between the 9th and 10th-ranked teams then has to also beat the loser between the 7th and 8th-ranked teams to move on.
Even with the odd format, 20 of the NBA’s 30 teams make some form of playoffs — 66.7%.
MLB has always resisted expanding its playoff format, reasoning that the limited number of teams that qualify for the playoffs heightens the importance of the thousands of games played during the regular season. But even they have expanded their playoffs.
The MLB playoffs were briefly expanded to 16 teams in 2020 because of COVID but the more permanent change is coming this year, with 12 of their 30 teams qualifying for the playoffs. The top two division winners in each league get a bye, then the third-ranked division winner and three wild card teams play a best-of-three series.
For both leagues, the expanded playoffs increases the interest in late-season games for fans and creates more entertaining do-or-die games in the opening round of the playoffs. While the new MLB format has yet to be tested, the NBA has been thrilled with the results.
“I’m more pleased with the play-in today than I thought we would be when we were first adopting it,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “What I wasn’t anticipating is that we would create races to ensure that teams were within the first six slots in their conference so they could avoid the play-in.”
If a 24-team playoffs is too radical, the NHL should expand the Wild Card
MLB’s format of divisional winners and wild cards doesn’t really fit the NHL’s model but they could implement something similar to the NBA.
The NHL already has the top-three teams from each division automatically make the playoffs. They could keep that format, then expand the wild card from two to four teams in each Conference. The four wild card teams in each Conference would then have a best-of-five play-in series to make the first round of the playoffs.
That would mean 20 of 32 teams would play some sort of postseason game, bringing the thrill of the playoffs even to fans of 10th-place teams.
Because everyone should have the chance to enjoy playoff hockey.