NHL should embrace the weird for this season’s playoff format

A 24-team playoff? Play-in games? Single-elimination tournament? The NHL has a vast amount of options for how this year’s playoffs can go, and they should embrace the chaos.

The NHL is adamant that the league will award the Stanley Cup for the 2019-20 season sometime this year. Though the season has been put on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL is hopeful it will be able to return in the second half of the 2020 calendar, though when that will be is still up in the air.

What also is uncertain is what form the NHL will take if and when play resumes for the season. When the season was paused, there was approximately one month left to play in the calendar, with teams having played a total number of games ranging from 68 to 71 at the time of the stoppage.

Given the uneven number of games played between the 31 NHL teams, there has been talk about the NHL resuming the season — if only partially — to give teams outside of the playoff bubble the chance to catch up and play the same amount of games as their competitors. There have been a number of potential solutions to the NHL’s problem of what to do when restarting the season, but all of the proposed ideas have one thing in common: they’re all extremely unorthodox.

The first idea that came to the NHL’s attention, it seems, is the idea of a 24-team playoff format. The proposal would expand the NHL’s usual playoff format from 16 to 24 teams, with four additional teams from each conference getting into the postseason. The idea eliminates the need for the continuation of the regular season, as the four additional teams outside of the wild card spots are more than enough to cover the teams in contention when the season paused in mid-March.

It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but it seems to be the most practical one given the circumstances. Especially if the NHL were to cancel the regular season entirely and just skip straight to the playoffs, like many are hoping they do given how muddy the waters are with issues such as arena availability if all 31 teams try to return.

It seems as if the NHL is considering every option in this period of uncertainty, no matter how unconventional. Which is good news, because the crisis the world is facing is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. But also because the NHL has the potential to get real weird with its playoff format this season.

Though the league’s current system is flawed and more complicated than it needs to be, this season the league can go absolutely wild with a format and return to normalcy next year with no problems. While the Stanley Cup Playoffs do not need manufactured drama, as it creates its own narratives easily enough on its own, this year is an incredibly different circumstance altogether.

Whenever sports returns to our televisions, fans are going to go bonkers after going without them for so long. The NHL has the opportunity to completely change up their format for one season only, making the playoffs an even more must-see event than usual.

From making the playoffs a single-elimination tournament (highly unlikely, due to the randomness of the sport, but fun to think of nonetheless!) to bringing all 31 teams into the mix, the league has carte blanche on what they want to do with the playoff format for this season. Sure, the Detroit Red Wings are definitely not worthy of a playoff spot, but the absolute CHAOS a full-league playoff would be is worth thinking about for the absurdity alone.

Even small changes, like turning the playoffs into a best-of-three or best-of-five format, would make for vital sports television watching as every game matters now more than ever.

Given the circumstances, the 2019-20 Stanley Cup winner will be looked upon in a different light than previous champions. However, that does not mean the NHL should shy away from going all-in on this season’s playoffs. In fact, they should embrace the strange for a one-time-only spectacle only hockey can provide.

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