Expansion of the Stanley Cup playoffs is my hill to die on. My last breaths will be spent mouthing the words "play ... in ... round."
I've explained my philosophy and procedures before in this column, but to reiterate: There are now 32 teams in the NHL. In the pre-Gary Bettman expansion era, 16 of 21 teams would advance to the postseason. We've gone from over 76% of the league making the playoffs to just 50% after the Seattle Kraken joined the family. The NBA, MLB and NFL have expanded their own postseason fields in recent years while the NHL remains stagnant, leaving money on the table.
The NHL makes no secret of how vital the Stanley Cup playoffs are to its product. It's like March Madness: The casual fans might not hang around during the regular season, but they turn out for the postseason tournament. New fans are created while following the joy and pain of a playoff run. Meanwhile, the star players who the league struggles to market outside the hockey bubble get their most intense sports media spotlight.
Why not invite more teams to that party? Expand the tournament to 20 teams, 10 from each conference. Start with a play-in round with the No. 7 and 10 seeds, mimicking the NBA model. Those teams advance to the pristine 16-team tournament we all find sacred, and off we go.
At the recent NHL Player Media Tour, I asked over a dozen players: What is your ideal Stanley Cup playoffs format and would you consider expanding the field now that there are 32 franchises?
What I found: That these NHL players would probably agree to increasing escrow before they agree to an expanded postseason. But they are intrigued by a smaller-scale tweak to the current Stanley Cup playoffs format:
Keep the wild card. Scrap the bracket.
"That's a good question. I like half the league being out of it. I've been on the outside of it a lot, and you're begging to get in. But I like it the way it is," Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said.
"But personally, I'm pretty old-school. I like the old format. One through 8."