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The Buffalo News (New York)
Give it up to Seattle. That's going to be a terrific addition to the NHL roster, a made-for-Vancouver rival in what figures to be a sparkling arena renovation in a great city with incredible sports fans. Home run all the way. The NHL will hit 32 teams in 2021-22, and there's another renovation that should now be undertaken but it won't be easy.
Gary Bettman is against any changes to the league's clunky playoff system but it needs to be overhauled. It's time owners, GMs and coaches band together and get the commish to listen and the rumblings out of last week's Board of Governors meeting in Sea Island, Ga., were positive on that front. More teams and better matchups should be the league's goals in the coming years.
There were times in the late 1970s and early 1980s where 16 of 21 teams were in the postseason and that was laughable. Everybody made the playoffs. It was too much. Well, we're at 16 out of 31 now and 16 out of 32 three years from now. That's almost as bad.
Half the league is left out every year and that's one reason you can get franchises (here's looking at you, Buffalo and Carolina) that spend years out of the playoffs. Bettman is on record as saying he doesn't want to dilute the regular season or take away from the glory of the first round of the playoffs by adding a mini series of additional teams. Have the wild-card games damaged baseball? Hardly.
(Never mind that the current format has ruined rounds 2-3 but we'll get there in a minute).
The solution is very simple. Ten teams from each conference qualify, with teams 7-8-9-10 staging a play-in series for the right to get to the first round. I'm with Bettman that a one-game play-in like baseball would not be fair, but there's no reason you can't stage a best-of-three affair between teams 7-10 and teams 8-9.
The best way to offer change would be for teams to speak up. Canadian teams have a lot of pull in this league and the television contracts speak volumes too. Remember how we got offside challenges? Montreal lost a playoff game on an offside overtime goal against Tampa Bay and suddenly there was replay on offside, although it came with the unintended consequence of parsing toenails to determine if goals should stand.
Similarly, what would happen if the Atlantic Division finished with, say, three of the top four teams overall and the Toronto Maple Leafs were a first-round victim for the third straight year?
No one seemed to care in 2017 when Columbus had 108 points and was a first-round loser to a 111-point Pittsburgh team. But the Leafs had 105 last year and were first-round losers to a 112-point Boston team. Let's give Toronto 108-111 points this year and have them lose again to the Sabres or Boston or some other 100-point team in the first round and watch the fury fly north of the border.
The Leafs would have a valid point that could be used for the greater good of the league.
The NHL's theory is that this format pushes rivalries but it's a fallacy. Teams only play four times in the regular season - and there were no Buffalo-Toronto games last season until March. And you can have rivalries within a conference too in a better format that you mostly don't get now.
The league fixed what wasn't broken when it went away from the 1-8/2-7/3-6/4-5 first round. That's how things should still be. Go to the NBA way and seed the division winners 1-2 in each conference, then slot in the rest of the teams.
Under the current format, you can lock in a second vs. third matchup in a division weeks before the end of the regular season and that's not good for anybody involved. There might only be one crossover series in a conference in the first two rounds and your conference final can be underwhelming as well.
Your best series is often the second-round "division championship" matchups like we saw last year between Nashville and Winnipeg and Pittsburgh and Washington. We might get it again this year with a potential Tampa Bay-Toronto series.
Bettman gets asked about this topic almost every year at either the All-Star Game or Stanley Cup final. He's downright dismissive on it, insisting he's not hearing much appetite for change. It's time he starts hearing what fans have been saying for a while and what teams are figuring out.
The playoffs are a mess. Get more teams in and put them together in a better format. It's not that hard.
An eye on 2021
Speaking of Seattle, I had a good chuckle at the blogs and web sites that spent time last week breathlessly running out stories about which players might be protected by teams in the upcoming expansion draft. In June, 2021. Yes, 2021. So premature in almost all cases. Who knows how many trades, injuries, retirements and signings can happen by then?
The one salient point: It does make a big difference to certain teams that Seattle starts in 2021-22 as opposed to 2020-21. With the Sabres, for instance, Rasmus Dahlin will now need to be on Buffalo's protected list for a Seattle team starting in '21-22. He would still be on his entry-level deal and would not have needed to be protected had Seattle been opening in '20-21.
The Governors meeting reiterated that the expansion draft rules will remain the same as they were for Vegas, with teams choosing protection Option A of seven forwards, three defenseman and a goalie or Option B of eight skaters and a goalie. Vegas will not be involved and will thus not lose a player.
From this view, Seattle will have a much tougher time than Vegas did. Teams have evaluated their mistakes the first time and won't foolishly give the Knights extra picks or players (that refers to you, Florida). You're losing one player. Many teams may say to Seattle simply to make your pick and leave us alone with side deals.
Going around the Sabres locker room in the wake of their 10-game winning streak has been an interesting exercise. Players obviously want it to be a highlight of their season, but not the highlight. A sampling:
· Jack Eichel: "The group is all on the same page. Everyone is pulling the rope in the right direction. When that happens, a lot of good can come from it. We've been through some adversity early in the year, losing games, not playing the way we wanted and getting beat pretty bad a couple of those games out West. I thought it was good to have a trip like that where you're away as a team for a while at the beginning of the year. I thought we got to know each other ... We just want to be around each other. It's been real contagious."
· Kyle Okposo: "You have to enjoy that run too because it doesn't really happen very much. You have to take the good and really enjoy it but also learn from what you're not doing well. Pretty special accomplishment. Somebody asked me if I had won 10 in a row and I couldn't remember, so I looked and I had not even come close."
· Jason Pominville, who won 12 straight two years ago in Minnesota and 10 in a row with the Sabres in 2006: "Bruce Boudreau told us after the Minny streak that he saw details of our game during the streak starting to slip but he didn't want to break them down too much because we had so much confidence going. You don't want to touch anything. Here, we had emotionally high-end games, guys were fired up. You don't want to get too low now that it's over. The key is to stay even-keeled."
Toronto money talk
What is the Toronto media going to obsess about the rest of the season now that William Nylander has finally signed his contract? Incredible amounts of bloviating about a 20-goal, 61-point guy. Imagine what it's going to be like up there when the Leafs finally win a round in the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Speaking of the Leafs, they're one team that has to be thrilled by the likely increase of the salary cap into the $83 million range. They're already spending $11 million a year on John Tavares and there's talk it could take a combined $21-22 million to get longterm deals done for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Good thing there are some team-friendly deals in place with the likes of Nazem Kadri (six years, $27 million), Zach Hyman (four years, $9 million), Morgan Rielly (six years, $30 million) and Nikita Zaitsev (seven years, $31.5 million). Good work by former GM Lou Lamoriello gave new GM Kyle Dubas the manueverability to sign Nylander and might allow him to still take a run at defenseman Jake Gardiner after the season in free agency.
Around the boards
· Sportsnet reported the Board of Governors discussed shortening intermissions from 18 minutes to 15. Television networks would like the change, giving viewers less time to ponder changing the channel, and there has long been a feeling from teams who are building momentum at the ends of periods that it's lost by the length of the break. But owners, of course, are worried about cutting into the time fans can head to the concourse and spend money.
· The forced move of Arizona from the Pacific to the Central Division in 2021 will do the Coyotes no favors. More travel for sure. Probably much tougher competition as well if current trends continue at both the NHL and prospect levels. The league, by the way, was adamant, this was not any sort of foreshadowing of moving the Coyotes to Houston to set up a rivalry with Dallas. We'll see.
· Sabres draft pick Mattias Samuelsson will be trying to become the first Western Michigan University player in more than 20 years to play for Team USA in the World Junior Championships when he heads to the Americans' selection camp next week in Everett, Wash.
Samuelsson, Buffalo's second-round pick in June, had three goals, three assists and a team-high plus-9 rating heading into a weekend series against defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth.
The last WMU player to play for Team USA in the juniors is defenseman Joe Corvo, who played in 1996. Corvo, who played 708 NHL games from 2002-2014, might be best known for his goal in double overtime that beat the Sabres in Game 2 of the 2007 Eastern Conference final.
· Hockey Canada announced Thursday that the 2021 World Juniors will be hosted by Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta. Edmonton last hosted with Calgary in 2012 and the '21 event will be the first held at Rogers Place, the new Oilers' arena that opened in 2016.
The 2019 event starts Dec. 26 in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. Next year's tournament will be in the Czech Republic. The juniors go to Sweden in 2022 and in Russia in 2023 before a likely return to the United States in either 2024 or 2025.
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