What a time to be alive. The Leafs are sitting in a playoff spot, but with a little over a week left in the regular season, nothing is quite certain yet. The Buds are in a fight to the death with Boston for that third seed in the Atlantic Division; meanwhile, Tampa Bay came out of winter hibernation in time to be nipping at the heels of the playoff bubble and may get Steven Stamkos back from injury soon. You also can't count out the Islanders or surging Hurricanes, who remain within striking distance.
This post isn't about that, however. This post is to lighten the mood with some takes you will surely find blistering hot, but bad and wrong, so that you can focus your energy on yelling at me instead of running through every mathematical permutation and combination of the standings in your head in an attempt to reassure yourself.
Without further ado, here goes:
(1) The NHL not going to the Olympics is probably a good thing.
There may be no more enjoyable pastime of hockey fandom than pointing out the myriad of ways the NHL constantly messes things up. Sure, the NHL may lack the outwardly proud tone-deafness of the NFL, or the rampant corruption of FIFA, but it's not without its foibles. The league required litigation to at least pretend to care about concussions; contract details disseminated from the league offices require a Class 3 security clearance; and virtually everything the commissioner says the fans don't want is actually something they do want, and vice versa.
Recently, league-directed criticism has manifested itself in the NHL's humming and hawing over whether it will participate in the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Most hockey fans are under the impression that skipping the Olympics would be bad. Those fans, in my opinion, are wrong.
[record scratch] [sound of pitchforks sharpening]
Don't get me wrong; seeing Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, among others, dominate their way to another Canadian gold medal would be awesome. I just don't see how it benefits the NHL, or at least in a manner in which reward outweighs risk.
Consider this: what is the endgame for Olympic hockey from the NHL's standpoint? To increase fan interest, and, consequently, TV ratings, hockey-related revenue, and the like. Sounds great in principle, but there's no evidence that Olympic participation actually does this. We wax poetic of the casual fan who watches Olympic hockey and gets hooked on the sport, but this hasn't actually translated into any tangible increase in the fan footprint. The NHL's revenue data since the 2005 lockout does not show any significant difference in revenue growth between Olympic and non-Olympic years; further, any growth in certain time periods could be explained by other factors (e.g. time elapsed since a full-year lockout; influx of casual fans from championships in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles). There is nothing that definitively shows that interest in Olympic hockey drives up interest in NHL hockey.
What many fans fail to consider about Olympic hockey viewership is this: a large number of those casual fans aren't sports fans whatsoever; they're Olympic fans. Their overall interest in sports really does not extend beyond a two-week window every fourth February or August. To these people, hockey is no different than the litany of other sports that even sports fans don't care about outside the Games. Be honest; how many of you otherwise watch luging? Speed skating? Ski jumping? I thought so.
The other downfall is the injury risk. Eugene Melnyk is a crazy man who says many crazy things, but he isn't 100% wrong on his take on Erik Karlsson. We, as Leaf fans, would probably not enjoy it all that much Auston Matthews went to the Olympics, only to sustain an injury that would keep him out of the Leafs lineup long-term, thus impacting their position in the standings. These are the risks we could assume once the Olympics end and the NHL resumes regular business. You may recall Curtis Joseph missing over a month in 2002 with an injury resulting from his participation in the Salt Lake games (which only failed to burn the Leafs thanks to a McElhinneyan effort from backup Corey Schwab). There are real consequences to consider.
At the end of the day,Team Canada bulldozing to yet another gold seems kinda hollow if it won't drum up more interest in the NHL product and potentially mess with a team by way of injuries. I'm cool with skipping it.
(2) The playoff format is good.
There's been lots of hand-wringing over the fairness of the NHL's playoff format this season. At the heart of it is the fact that, for being home to the Eastern Conference's top four teams, the Metropolitan Division will see the 2nd and 3rd best team in the East play one another, while the 4th best team loses home ice advantage to face the 5th best team, but gets to play the first two rounds within the easier Atlantic Division. This, to hear it from some, renders the playoff structure a greater injustice than famine, apartheid, or the shootout.
But, is it unfair? Is it really? (I can hear you screaming "yes" at the top of your lungs; just stay with me a moment)
The old format wasn't exactly much fairer. Remember the Southeast Division? A division so weak that, in its entire history, it never had more than two of five teams qualify for the postseason in any given year? The reward for winning such an inferior division was an automatic top 3 seed and first round home ice which, more often that not, was undeserving. Recall the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, in which the 91-point Carolina Hurricanes- who had fewer points than the 9th place team in the West- had home ice by virtue of being the 3 seed against the 100-point Leafs, who despite being the third-best team in the NHL, were 4 seed by being second in their division. Fair!
This year's standings under that old format would be....unremarkably different! Two of those top Metro teams would play one another in the 4 vs. 5 first round matchup. While everyone seems to be aghast about Pittsburgh and Washington- the consensus top two teams in the East- potentially facing one another in the second round, that'd be a probable 1 vs 4 matchup under the old format.
What we're seeing this season is unprecedented weirdness in the standings, but it exists in virtually every sport. Consider the NFL, in which 9-7 division winners regularly qualify for the postseason over 10-6 teams in stronger divisions and subsequently host a game against a 12-4 wildcard team. The 2010 playoffs were even more egregious than that, with the 11-5 New Orleans Saints required to play on the road against a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team that played in a ghastly division. The MLB has had similar flaws; in 2012, the 90-72 Tampa Bay Rays missed the postseason, while the 88-74 Detroit Tigers qualified by winning the AL Central. In 2015, the NL's second and third best teams- the 98-64 Pittsburgh Pirates and 97-65 Chicago Cubs- were "wildcards" facing off in a one-game playoff, while the fourth and fifth best teams (the 92-70 Los Angeles Dodgers and 90-72 New York Mets) played one another in the best-of-five NLDS, ensuring one of those teams would make the NLCS.
The flaws in the playoff format are not indigenous to hockey, but the benefits? Oh boy; the benefits are great. It's possible that in the first two rounds of the postseason, we could see matchups such as: Montreal/Toronto; Montreal/Boston; Ottawa/Toronto; Pittsburgh/Washington; Pittsburgh/Columbus; Chicago/Nashville; Chicago/Minnesota; Chicago/St. Louis; Calgary/Edmonton; and, Anaheim/San Jose. The NHL is an entertainment business, and I would say all those prospective playoff series sound mighty entertaining.
Finally, the bottom line: the teams that should make the playoffs do so. The team that should win the Cup does. Pittsburgh may play Washington a round earlier than some may like, but they have to beat Washington to win the Cup regardless of when they do it. There's also no evidence a harder postseason schedule affects a team's likelihood of winning the Cup (see Pittsburgh's road to last year's Cup Final vs. San Jose). The cream rises to the top regardless of who you put where.
(3) Scrap the offside review entirely.
Not just certain situations; entirely. No more coach's challenge for offsides whatsoever. Period.
B-b-b-b-but the rules! Here's the thing; the reason a coach's challenge was instituted for offside review was entirely because of a 2013 incident in which Matt Duchene scored a goal despite bring egregiously offside. That's it; that's what the rule was meant to prevent. It was to be a means to prevent situations in which, due to a linesman brain fart, someone well offside in possession of the puck scored a goal. Seems simple, right?
Wrong, because that's not what people are reviewing! Now, you have coaches reviewing if a goal should be waved off because a guy's skate was slightly over the blueline from 2 out of 3 angles a full 10 seconds and five possessions before the goal occurred, at least according to the grainy Zapruder footage refs review on a first generation iPad. The whole process generally takes up to ten minutes, which saps the interest of virtually every hockey fan, and it sacrifices fun and offense at the altar of being a complete stickler for the rules. If that's your kinda thing, go watch golf.
One only need to look at the NFL and its 2014 rule changes for pass interference to see how over-officiating can really suck the enjoyment out of a sport. That's not a path the NHL ought to follow, especially since the NFL could adopt the rules of Calvinball and still crush the ratings, whereas that's just not realistic for hockey. The whole idea of an offside challenge was to prevent goals borne from an egregious breach of the rules, despite the fact we can only cite one such example, which occurred four years ago. If that's the case, maybe we should let the linesmen be the artbiter of the lines and accept that human error does sometimes occur.
On that note, I sincerely hope a game in this year's Stanley Cup Final is decided on a goal being waved off for a chintzy offside review, because that's just about the only way the NHL decides to change anything.
(4) The loser point actually makes sense
Credit to our own Fulemin for being the first person to bring this argument up, although Tyler Dellow did recently as well. While people lament the dreaded "three-point game," it may just be a matter of the way you're thinking about it. People seem to think some games being worth more than others is unfair.
Consider it, however, from this angle: a regulation game of hockey (60 minutes, 5-on-5) is worth two points. Those are the two points that are awarded at the conclusion of three periods of play. If a team scores more goals than the other team after 60 minutes, that team will collect those two points while the other team collects none. If the teams are tied at this point, they each collect a single point.
If, however, those teams are tied, they proceed to a 3-on-3 OT, followed by a shootout, until a winner is decided. If you treat this like a bonus round where a bonus point is up for grabs, then the loser point system makes sense. The teams have each collected a point for their efforts of being tied; now some extra hockey will break that tie and award the winner a second point in the game.
I accept it isn't the best system, but I submit it isn't as nonsensical as some make it out to be. What would I prefer better? A 3-2-1-0 system? Nah.....
(4b) Bring back ties
3-on-3 OT is great. Sure, it may not be hockey in the most traditional sense, but it's enthralling and the greater amount of open ice really makes every possession of the puck somehow more meaningful. It's exhilarating.
The problem: following that with a shootout absolutely sucks. Shootouts suck. I know I cheer for a team that has definitely not benefited from them this year, but I'd feel the same if the Leafs were 8-1. They're pointless. They have the randomness of a coinflip and are not at all representative of a team's actual hockey skill (the NHL-leading Washington Capitals are 2-5 in the shootout, while basement-dwellers like Detroit and Arizona are 8-0 and 6-2, respectively). You might as well just award the extra point to whichever team wins a best-of-three round of rock/paper/scissors; what the hell is the difference?
My proposal: extend 3-on-3 OT to 10 minutes. Winner gets two points, loser gets a single pity point. If, however, the game is tied at the conclusion of OT, that's it. It's a tie. Both teams get a point. No more random shootouts to award a completely arbitrary point to a team. If two teams can remain deadlocked after 60 full minutes and 10 minutes of 3-on-3, I would have to believe neither team deserves more points than the other.
What a world that would be; an age of peace, prosperity, and the NHL goal differentials actually being accurate. Some may say that would encourage conservative play, but: (a) there's only a positive incentive for winning in OT, and no negative incentive for losing; you get one point and a shot at a second; and, (b) if you've watched even a second of 3v3 OT, you'll know that surviving ten minutes of that without giving up a goal is not gonna be all that likely.
(5) I like Matt Martin.
His contract is 2 years and $1MM too much, sure, but he's the Big Brother of the team. He also ain't much offensively, but he's the top forward in suppressing shot attempts. A fourth liner that can chip in 5-10 goals and 10-15 points while keeping the other team pretty low-event is fine by me.