In their four years of existence, the Golden Knights have taught the fans of Vegas many lessons. The chief among them is just how incredibly difficult it is to be the last team standing at the end of the season. But along those lines, one of the biggest reasons for that is the current format of the playoffs in the NHL.
In four seasons, the Golden Knights have participated in the playoffs every year. They’ve seen two different playoff formats, finished atop the division twice, and have come in second and third the other two years. Each season, the playoffs have proven to be a much different animal than the regular season and as we head into VGK’s 5th season, it’s never been clearer how invaluable the 82-game season is.
The Golden Knights are the third betting favorite to win the Stanley Cup at William Hill, they are the runaway favorites to win the Pacific Division, and they are widely expected to eclipse 90 points with ease. The problem is, the current format of the playoffs doesn’t really reward a team for dominating in the postseason, especially when you play in the worst division.
For winning the Pacific, the Golden Knights’ “reward” would be a first-round date with the 4th place team from the Pacific or, more likely, the 5th place team from the Central. The division winners get four home games while the wild card team gets three. It’s a massive grind just to win one series, let alone four, and the benefits of being the best team over an 82-game season are minimal at best. Simply put, the regular season is majorly undervalued, and this needs to change.
The AHL has rolled out a new format for their playoffs, which could potentially be the first step towards a change in the NHL. The Calder Cup playoffs will now include 23 teams with nine getting first-round byes. In one division, the top two teams in the standings at the end of the year automatically skip the first round and await the winner of a best-of-three series between the teams finishing 3rd to 6th. In another division (the one the Silver Knights play in), only the top team in the division gets a bye while six others must fight for their spot in a best-of-three. And in the last two divisions, the top three get byes while two others play to reach the divisional semis.
Usually, I’m against expanding the postseason as it normally devalues the regular season, but adding byes massively changes the importance of the regular season for the top teams, especially in the Pacific where only the division winner is rewarded.
In all four divisions, there’s a cut line to make the playoffs and there’s another cut line to earn a bye. This creates more competition amongst the top teams in the league, which is excellent for both fans and players. There are pros and cons to each division’s layout in the AHL, each of which we will get to see play out over the course of this season.
Imagine how different this regular season would feel if the Golden Knights had to win the division to earn a bye. The NHL’s regular season needs a facelift and the AHL may have just handed them the blueprint.