It’s not often, if ever, that your trusty correspondent disagrees with one of the brightest, most progressive voices in hockey. But when it comes to the notion of holding a wildcard play-in game to give one more team per conference a chance to make the playoffs, that’s where I have to draw the line with one Ken Holland.
Speaking to Gary Lawless of tsn.ca, the Detroit Red Wings GM and the man who brought us 3-on-3 overtime opined that he would like to see the playoff pool expanded to essentially have three wildcard teams instead of two. The wildcard team with the best regular-season record of the three would be guaranteed a playoff berth, while the next two would hold a one-game, winner-take-all event to decide the second wildcard team.
There hasn’t been much of an appetite for this sort of thing among the game's power brokers, thank goodness, but there wasn’t much of an appetite for 3-on-3 overtime at one time, either. Holland can be very persuasive. Not sure if he hypnotizes his fellow GMs by swinging one of his four Stanley Cup rings on a string in front of their eyes, but he has a way of getting them to come around his way of thinking. Here’s hoping they resist the temptation this time.
Here’s why. Because any excitement the wildcard race would create in the markets that are involved would be mitigated by the notion that the league is once again rewarding mediocrity. These teams have 82 games to prove they’re in the top half of the league. That doesn’t seem, at least to these eyes, to be too much to ask. A better idea would be to just give each of the No. 9 seeds a nice, shiny Participation Trophy and send them home for the summer.
Geez, Louise, don’t we have enough parity shoved down our throats by the NHL already? Let’s see, when a team is killing a penalty it is allowed, for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain, to ice the puck with impunity. And if it gets scored on, the penalized player is allowed back on the ice. Players can glove the puck ahead in the defensive zone, but not the offensive zone. The NHL has a draft to ensure that all the best players are distributed fairly. The NHL has a salary cap to prevent rich, large market teams from having a competitive advantage. Teams that lose in overtime or the skills competition get a single loser point for just showing up, which already creates trumped-up playoff races and bogus .500 teams. Someday when the league and the players can agree on it, they'll get around to streamlining goaltending equipment. The NHL awarded a trophy to the best defensive forward for more than 20 years before it decided to get around to establishing one for the league’s top goal scorer. Rather than reward excellence, the NHL has time after time tailored its rules and philosophy to bringing great teams down to the others’ level.
And this would just be another example of that. Last season, the Minnesota Wild limped into eighth in the Western Conference and lost their last five games of the season. The Colorado Avalanche finished five points behind the Wild, losing each of their last six games of the season. Wow, that would have been some game, eh? The only problem is that the way those teams were playing down the stretch, the league might have had to postpone the start of the playoffs to let them finish the game. When you take into account the 11 bogus points the Wild gained for losing in overtime and shootouts, they lost six more games than they won last season. And they still made the playoffs. That’s quite enough, thank you.
Had there been a play-in game in 2011-12, the Los Angeles Kings would have had to play the Calgary Flames in Game No. 83 of the season. If the Flames had won, the Kings would not have gone on to win their first Stanley Cup. If there had been one in 2014-15, the Winnipeg Jets would have faced the Kings and had they lost, we would have been deprived of their first-round series against the Anaheim Ducks, one that went four straight, but might have been the closest, most intense and competitive sweeps in the history of the game.
Look, most teams are already in the playoff race until the last quarter of the season. Unless they’re really bad, like say, Colorado is this season. The league constantly trumpets how close its games are, conveniently failing to point out the fact that it’s only that way because nobody scores goals anymore. The NHL loves its parity, but enough is enough. It reminds me of house league hockey where scorekeepers stop adding goals to the winning team if the margin between the teams is more than five goals, as if the kids are too dumb to figure out that they’re actually losing 14-0 if the scoreboard only says 5-0. It’s all a part of the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality that many observers think is adding to a sense of entitlement in kids that they are now taking into adulthood.
I’m not about to wade into that debate at the moment, but one thing I do know is that there’s no place for it in the best league in the world where the players are also smart enough to know when they don’t belong in the playoffs. And it’s the NHL, which stands for National Hockey League, not National House League.