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Ask Me Anything: The NHL playoff format's damaging ripple effect

What should change about the current NHL playoff format? Should the NHL create any new player awards? Can reporters still be fans of teams? And more.

Discussing trades and swirling rumors leading up to the deadline is always exciting, but there’s something freeing about the juncture between the deadline and the playoffs every season. We know there won’t be any wild player movement between now and the draft, so the questions for this Ask Me Anything Mailbag have a big-picture, meaning-of-the-universe bent to them. That’s refreshing. Let’s lean back on our lawn chairs and philosophize.

(By the way: I received several questions about the Oilers’ off-season game plan this week, but I dodged ’em because we don’t yet know who the new GM hire will be. It’s difficult to speculate on what the team will do until we learn who's running the show.)

Yehuda Hamer (@Aduhey) asks…

Your thoughts on the NHL playoff system? What would you change?

Immediate disclaimer: I tweeted about my hatred for the current format this week when I realized it would likely eliminate two of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs by the end of Round 2 despite the fact they held three of the league’s top four point totals at the time. A common response to that was “Boo hoo, you care now that it affects the Leafs.” What load of revisionist BS. I’ve been harping on this divisional format for years. It’s been a disaster for the Atlantic Division the past couple seasons, clearly, but it was gutting the Metro before that.

In 2016-17, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets finished first, second and fourth in overall points. Under the divisional-bracket system, fourth-overall Columbus had to play its Metro neighbor, second-overall Pittsburgh, in Round 1. Then, we had the top two teams in the overallstandings facing off in Round 2 with the Pens and Capitals. Ugh. I couldn’t stand it. Neither could Barry Trotz at the time, by the way. The counterargument might state, “Hey, you have to beat those teams anyway,” but that perspective only really applies as a flex for cocky fans whose team just won the Stanley Cup. There are so many other factors to consider.

Let’s use the Blue Jackets as a case study. They posted their highest point total in franchise history in 2016-17 but drew the eventual champion in Round 1. For all we know, this was a franchise good enough to win one or two playoff rounds. That would’ve been massive for its gate revenue, too. Instead, it was bounced in Round 1 and still has never won a playoff series. It’s clear GM Jarmo Kekalainen is behaving like a true swashbuckler with his trades this year, and that heat ties directly to Columbus’ inability to escape Round 1. One of the things I hate most about the current playoff format: it can mask some very good teams and put their sense of self-worth in a funhouse mirror because they lose to an amazing team in the first round. The Leafs and Bruins might be elite, conference-final-caliber teams only a couple tweaks away from true Cup contention, but they’re missing opportunities to properly evaluate who they are because they beat up on each other in Round 1, then get Tampa in Round 2. It’s tough for a great team to grow into an elite one when it never gets the playoff experience. Would the 1995 New Jersey Devils have won the Cup if their epic seven-game war with the New York Rangers in 1994 took place in Round 1? All those rounds of experience leading up to the heavyweight tilt were crucial.

Hopefully I’m making sense here. My point is: some excellent teams worthy of longer-term playoff success are getting snuffed out before they can grow and find out their strengths and weaknesses. The Nashville Predators might have been the NHL’s second-best team last year, but they only played two playoff rounds. I could go on about this longer. Another reason to dislike the formula right now: for fans, it’s anticlimactic to arrive at Round 3 with, potentially, all the playoffs’ best series finished.

I never thought the 1-to-8 seeding system was broken, and I’d gladly return to it. If we still consider the idea of divisions holy, we can still award the top two seeds to the division winners. But I wouldn’t even mind if we eschewed divisions for two conferences of 16 teams (once Seattle joins the West). Under that format, the Capitals, Penguins and Blue Jackets would’ve been seeded 1-2-3 in the East in 2017, and we’d get the same with Tampa, Boston and Toronto if the current standings held. That would feel just to me.

Eric Renkema (@OneOfHisTools) asks…

Growing up, were you and your peers fans of certain NHL teams? And, now that you’re all in the business, are you all still a fan of that team, or are you all purposely neutral in your fandom?

I love this question, as it ranks near the top of the “things I get asked at weddings” power rankings alongside “Why doesn’t the magazine have depth charts anymore?” and “Will the Leafs trade for _________?”

If you speak to the long-time industry vets, people covering the NHL for 25-plus years, the answer typically comes back that the fanhood is dead, especially among the beat writers. There’s something about covering the same team every day, every practice and skate and game and conference call, that sucks fanhood dry. The vast majority of reporters I know did have a favorite team at some point, as that’s typically what made them hockey lovers in the first place, but constantly being exposed to the inside of the game can de-romanticize it and render most of them neutral observers. One exciting symptom of that, however, is that it makes you more of a fan of the game itself. Those who have renounced individual team support are more likely to enjoy watching any game, anywhere, any time. They appreciate it in a way diehard devotees of one team can’t. Good hockey is good hockey, period.

So that’s an overhead view of the people I’ve met in the industry. Now for my own experience after covering hockey at the NHL level for about a decade. I did spend a large portion of my life cheering for Team X. And if I’m ever around that team nowadays, there are still brief flickers of “Wow, I’m standing here in Team X’s dressing room. I never thought I’d be here.” But there’s no doubt the fanhood changes. I still find myself following my old team closely to see how it fares, but what’s been removed is the emotion, the visible reactions to that team scoring or winning. When you’re conditioned to stop yourself from reacting in the press box, that starts carrying over to watching at home on TV, too. So while my fanhood isn’t dead, it’s deeply dormant. It’s taken the form of mere “interest.” I consider that a good thing, as you don’t want to report on any team through an emotional prism.

I do find there’s an interesting double standard for hockey writers depending on which teams they support. Few reveal their allegiances to big-market Canadian teams or Original-Six American markets, lest they be chastised as biased hacks on social media, but it’s apparently kosher to admit you’re a fan of an obscure sun-belt team. I’ve known writers who’ve worn Florida Panthers adoration, for example, on their sleeves proudly with no fear of repercussions.

Andreas B. Ofner (@DrewsGrooves) asks…

There are astonishing seasons by so many players this year that we can expect a giant wave of award snubs after the season. Should the NHL expand the gallery of individual awards? If so, what are we missing? Or would you rather make a change to the definition of an existing one?

Here’s another hockey subject I ponder often. First, there is one NHL award omission so glaringly obvious that I think it’s an insult to the sport . We have the Rocket Richard Trophy for the NHL’s leading goal-scorer. We have the Art Ross Trophy for the league leader in points. Why on Earth is there no Wayne Gretzky Trophy for the annual league leader in assists? It find it strange that the awards have found ways to honor shooters, defensive forwards, even good captains with the Mark Messier Leadership Award – but never playmakers. The Gretzky Trophy, to me, should’ve been instituted shortly after his retirement in 1999. Technically, a Gretzky Trophy exists, awarded to the OHL’s Western Conference champion every season since 1999, so the NHL could name its hardware the Gretzky Award instead.

I figured I'd better dismount my high horse for a second and check with league sources to see if there's been any talk of a Gretzky Award. I was told there had been no formal discussion on it, nor that there was a plan to introduce any new awards at this time, but that it would certainly be considered if a powerful voice – think team owner or executive – were to table a pitch. Status quo for now by the sounds of it.

If you’re curious: Gretzky would be the all-time leader in his own award by a mile, having led the NHL in assists SIXTEEN TIMES, including 13 times in a row at one point. Second place in fictional Gretzky Awards would be Bobby Orr at five. I’ll say it every chance I get: Gretzky is the most dominant professional team-sport athlete of all-time.

Another popular pick for a new trophy that I don’t necessarily agree with: the idea of instituting a defensive-defenseman award, which would take the sting out of so many offensive defensemen winning the Norris Trophy. It could be fun to honor defensive defensemen but, to me, those who slam the Norris voting criteria misunderstand the award’s definition. It doesn’t go to the “best offensive defenseman” or “best defensive defenseman” or even "the best defenseman." It goes to “the defenseman who throughout the season demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in the position.” In other words, it’s a awarded to the blueliner who has the greatest overall impact on the game. When an Erik Karlsson type is constantly affecting where the puck is, skewing the shot-attempt ratio in his team’s favor and doing it so much better than his own teammates do according to the “relative” possession-stat categories, it’s obvious he has a massive all-around influence on the game. So, to me, I don’t think of that as an offense-only guy stealing the Norris. It’s the most impactful guy winning it. I thus don’t believe the Norris is broken.

One award I’d consider redefining: the Hart. Maybe the NHL isn’t meant to have an MVP. In years like 2018, when voters followed the definition correctly and gave it to Taylor Hall, the guy who carried his team on his back to the playoffs, there was plenty of uproar over not giving it to Connor McDavid, the game’s best player. But anyone hating that vote should’ve been criticizing the criteria, not the Professional Hockey Writers Association voters, as the award goes to “the player judged to be the most valuable to his team” and thus hasn’t gone to a non-playoff guy since Mario Lemieux snagged it in 1987-88. An accolade for most outstanding player exists anyway: the Ted Lindsay Award. And remember McDavid’s reaction when we asked him about winning it at the 2018 Awards?

“I don’t want to bash on the media or anything like that, – the Hart is obviously a very important trophy – but to have players vote for (the Lindsay), it means so much,” McDavid said. “It’s so special to know they have that respect and feel that way about me. So it definitely means a lot."

If everyone cares more about the best player being honored, yet the Hart still unofficially gets more attention than the Lindsay, we could change the Hart so that it goes to the league’s most outstanding player and silences the whiners. Nikita Kucherov would have a best-player award locked in already at this point in the season. But most valuable? The debate isn’t quite over yet considering he has a tremendous supporting cast. Cue the outrage.

Stuart Miller-Davis (@StumillerDavis) asks…

The idea of resting players is already a popular one in the NFL and NBA. The Canadiens are giving Jesperi Kotkaniemi some days of rest. Is this a strategy more NHL teams will start using?

Hey Stuart. It does seem like today's athlete needs more rest, doesn't it? We live in a culture of hyper training, putting more strain on young athletes’ bodies year round, including the off-season, which seems to result in more repetitive-stress injuries. Look at Jesse Puljujarvi, who just had surgery on both hips and doesn’t turn 21 until May. We’ve already fully entered an era of “pitch counts” for starting goalies. Twenty years ago, 16 goalies started at least 60 games. Ten years ago: 10 goalies reached 60 starts. Five years ago: eight goalies, and the number should finish around there this season, too. Teams try hard to limit their stoppers’ workloads.

As for resting skaters, it wouldn’t surprise me to see start happening more often with rookies – depending on where they played their developmental hockey, as getting rest (when we’re referring to healthy players not sitting because of physical ailments) is a countermeasure against the “rookie wall.” If you’re an older prospect having completed a full season in the AHL, you’re playing a 76-game schedule (unless you’re on one of the new Pacific Division teams). If you’re coming from major junior, you’re playing 68 games. Kotkaniemi, however, came from the Finnish Liiga, which plays a 60-game schedule. The SHL in Sweden plays a 52-game circuit. Teams play 62 games in the KHL, but it’s very rare for prospects to receive veteran-sized workloads, so the minutes can be minimal. In NCAA Div. I, teams don’t all play the same number of games, but the slates finish in the high 30s and low 40s.

So an NHL workload of 82 games can be an utter shock to the system for a kid still growing into his body and trying to put on weight. Kotkaniemi, a 6-foot-2, 184-pound 18-year-old, has already smashed his professional career high in games with 66, and he’s done it against the biggest, strongest, best competition of his life. It thus makes sense to give him a breather, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more coaches start doing it with rookies who didn’t play major junior or AHL hockey. The recovery time is crucial. I remember speaking with New York Rangers rookie center Filip Chytil about it a couple months ago, and he said the most important thing he was learning from his veteran teammates this season was how to recover after games. That was coming from someone who at least saw AHL duty for a good chunk of last season, too.

Dave Snyder (@DragoonLowell) asks…

Why aren’t Sergei Zubov and Theo Fleury already in the Hall of Fame?

There are two lenses through which we can evaluate Zubov’s and Fleury’s Hall cases. First off, my own unofficial rule: I consider a worthy Hall candidate to be a player who was among the best five guys at his position for a period of at least five years – on top of whatever accolades he won. I was a big-time Eric Lindros truther, for instance, because he was an all-world NHLer for an extended period despite his injury-shortened career. Consequently, I’m not big on candidates like Patrik Elias or Patrick Marleau, because they were never dominant. They belong in the Hall of Very Good.

Into which category do Zubov and Fleury fall?

I loved watching Zubov play. He was an intelligent, slick-skating blueliner who logged monster minutes on two Stanley Cup franchises, the 1994 New York Rangers and 1999 Dallas Stars. He was also never a first-team all-star and once a second-team all-star. He never won a Norris Trophy, his best finish in the vote was third, and he finished top-five in the vote twice across 16 seasons. He played in the same era as Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Scott Niedermayer, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and Rob Blake. We wouldn’t rank Zubov in the same tier as any of those defensemen, right? He was never the pre-eminent guy as his position, even though he was outstanding.

Fleury played the second half of his career in the Dead Puck Era but still averaged better than a point per game across his 1,084 contests. He’s a Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medallist. Adjusted for era by hockey-reference.com, his points jump to 1,111. A total of 91 players have 1,000 or more adjusted points. Among that group, 18 are active and/or not yet eligible for Hall induction, leaving 73 players. And among those 73, only 13 are not Hall of Famers – Pierre Turgeon, Daniel Alfredsson, Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour, Vincent Damphousse, Ray Whitney, Keith Tkachuk, Fleury, Alex Kovalev, Doug Weight, Bernie Nicholls, Alexander Mogilny and Jason Arnott. Fleury at least belongs in the discussion with these bubble forwards, then. But he didn’t accomplish as much in his career as Tkachuk (538 goals) or Brind’Amour (two Selke Trophies), so he’s at least behind them in the line. Fleury was never a first-team all-star, only received Hart Trophy votes in two of his 15 NHL seasons and never took home any major individual hardware.

So maybe Zubov and Fleury, outstanding as they were, are first-ballot Hall of Very Good members instead of Hall members.

But wait – that’s only true if we use the Larkin Hall criteria. The real-life Hall has been pretty lenient with other Hall-of-Very Good types. If Bernie Federko (no awards, no Cups, no first- or second-team all-star nods) and Clark Gillies (697 points) were deemed Hall-worthy, Fleury deserves strong consideration. And if a supremely talented but defensively suspect blueliner like Phil Housley can get his name called, Zubov deserves a long look considering (I believe) most coaches would take him in his prime over Housley in his prime to win one game.

Neither guy is guaranteed to get the call to the Hall, but I don’t think hope is lost for either. To me, Zubov is more likely – and more deserving – of an induction.

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