10 January 2012

Would a play-in round please the PA?, thoughts on Cullen's comments to Russo

I was glad to see Minnesota Wild player rep Matt Cullen spell out the Players' Association's position a little better on Sunday regarding their stance on the realignment plan.  Cullen told Star Tribune Wild beat writer Michael Russo,
"There's going to be realignment. It's just a matter of trying to actually do it right instead of rushing to get it done. I don't quite understand why the league imposed a deadline."
As always I recommend clicking over to Russo yourself to read the full article for more info from the players' mouths.  Cullen's remarks indicate the PA's issue is more they were not involved in the discussions and they felt they should be.  The issue is not necessarily that the PA opposes it, they just want more information before approving it, and I don't think its to big a stretch to read into Cullen's remarks that in the end, the PA wants to approve it.

It appears to me Players' Association leader Donald Fehr is using this to remind the league that the PA is ready fight on everything, even if players, particularly those on Western Conference teams (such as Calgary and Minnesota), do want the plan in the end.

The other issue mentioned is some players are concerned about the inequity of the playoff format.  That it isn't fair that teams in a conference of eight only (on average) have a 4 in 8 chance of making the playoffs, while teams in a conference of seven have an 4 in 7 chance.

I do think this is the most overblown issue in the realignment discussion, as I mentioned in my post following the BOG's announcement of the new plan's approval.

To summarize my opinion...
  1. The difference amounts to one extra playoff appearance every 14 years for teams in a conference of seven.  This difference takes longer to experience than most players' careers.
  2. A crossover rule would increase the travel of the top seed in the smaller division in the name of fairness to a fifth seed (furthermore, imbalanced scheduling means teams in different conferences play very different schedules, rendering any comparison quite meaningless).  I don't have a problem with tough love for mediocre teams.
  3. The conferences aren't etched in stone, there is potential for relocation and expansions that would change which conferences have eight teams and which have seven.  This in itself serves to balance some of this inequity.
But I do have an idea that might help and might provide a win for the Players' Association.  What if we consider a short #4 seed v #5 seed play-in series for the conferences of eight?

(I expand on this idea after the jump)
The simplest way to do this would be a best-of-3 playoff series.  Ideally the #5 seed would host the first game, and the #4 seed would host the second game (and the third game if necessary), winner advances to the conference semifinal against the #1 seed.

A potential problem is this would a tough thing to schedule, and would have to be done as three games in four nights to complete.  This year, the NHL's regular season ends on a Saturday, in years past, it's ended on a Sunday (2011, 2010, etc...), with the playoff series starting on either Wednesday or Thursday.

The best thing would be to schedule the regular season for the conferences of eight to end a day early (if it were this season, on Friday, April 6.)  The best of 3 series would be Sunday (8th)-Tuesday (10th)-Wednesday (11th), the winner would advance to play the #1 seed that has had a full week's rest on Friday (or perhaps even Thursday).  The six other conference playoff series would start on Wednesday or Thursday as scheduled.

If there's concerns about how tight the scheduling would be, here are a few ideas I will just put out there.
  • If series is split after two games, change the third game to be a "mini-game tiebreaker" immediately following game two.  The mini-game would be a zamboni intermission, followed by one sudden-death 20 minute period, shootout in case of a tie. (Idea inspired by Major Indoor Soccer League
  • Apply regular season rules to the play-in series, regarding short overtime and shootouts.  No marathon games in this round.
  • If applying regular season overtime rules, could also apply regular season points, and play best-of-2 with tiebreaker.  This could cut down on the number of tiebreaker games needed.  If one team wins in regulation, and loses a shootout, they would still win the series 3 points to 2 (this would work better if the points system wasn't already so screwed up).
  • One for the soccer-philes: two-game series, most total goals advances. (Individual games would end in ties after three periods, mini-game tiebreaker played only if total goals tied after both games.  And for the record, if any actual soccer fans are reading, count me against).
From a simplicity standpoint, best-of-3 would probably be the best format, especially if the point of all this is to get more playoff games.  But if willing to do a mini-game tiebreaker when necessary, there are many good ways to do a two-game format if that's preferable (particularly applying at least my first two suggestions).  Then a basic home-and-home on Sunday-Monday could be scheduled, and the winner could start their playoff series as soon as Wednesday against the #1 seed.

There are some potential problems with scheduling.  In the conferences of 8 as proposed, Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Los Angeles, all share their buildings with NBA teams. (The Kings in fact share with two NBA teams.  Yes Clipper fans, unlike your snarky Laker fan counterparts, I do recognize the Clippers are in fact in the NBA.)  This might cause some problems getting a best-of-3 scheduled on short notice needing particular dates.

Here's the good and bad I see about adding a play in round for the conferences of 8 (add more in the comments if you like :) ).

The Good:
  • If you use this fraction calculator 5/8 minus 4/7 is 3/56.  So teams in a conference of eight would get 3 "extra" playoff appearances every 56 years on average (or one every 18 and two-thirds seasons), reversing the extra 1 appears every 14 seasons average the conferences of seven have in the four playoff teams from each conference proposed.  (Note: there is a big counterpoint to this under "The Bad" section)
  • This keeps all first round playoff series within each "new conference," maintaining the travel concerns motivating the playoff change.  This is something a cross-over rule does not do.
  • Does compensate two teams in conferences of eight with at least one extra home playoff game each season.
  • Does reward the winner of the conference with about a week of rest.
  • Furthermore, this means every position of finish would have meaning in each new conference.  #1 essentially gets a bye and home ice through the first two rounds.  #2 still gets home ice in the first round, #3 avoids the play-in round, #4 gets home-ice in the play in round, #5 hosts only one game in the play in round.  (Maybe this is enough to make the Red Wings give a damn about the regular season again.  Oh they're in first place this year? My snark-timer is off.)  Four teams in the playoff per conference means there's still a difference between #1 and #2, but #3 and #4 are in similar situations unless the #1 team is significantly better than #2.
The Bad:
  • (The big one) While there is a higher chance to "make the playoffs" in a conference of eight with five playoff teams then a conference of seven with four playoff teams, the 4th seed in a conference of eight is faced with a possibility of being eliminated before the "final sixteen."  A possibility a 4th seed in a conference of seven wouldn't face.
  • This also means overall, teams in a conference of eight still have the same chance of making the "final sixteen" as they did without a play in series, on average.  It's still four spots out of eight teams.
  • The dates needed for this have little flexibility to prevent the series against the #1 seed from starting too much later than the others.
  • What to do if the NHL does go to 32 teams?  Does the play in round apply to all four conferences, or does it get eliminated in favor of the more traditional format?
  • Shootout creep.  If the NHL puts in the measures for this series that include shootouts, this could be the first measure against what I consider a righteous effort to keep the shootout out of the playoffs.
Overall, I stand by my point that the disparity in playoff appearances in format as approved by the Board of Governors is too small to actually matter and a play-in round isn't really necessary.  I hope that's how the PA will eventually see it.  However, if adding a play in round would make the Players' Association happy, I would be all for it, and there are ways to make it work, as tight in the schedule as it would be.

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