Playoff seeding and the ‘bleed’ rule: How can the NHL improve its product?

NHL, Winnipeg Jets (Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)
NHL, Winnipeg Jets (Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports) /

Outside of March Madness, the NHL Playoffs are the best sporting entertainment on the planet. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary. The intensity, the palpable energy, and the unpredictability of the game amalgamate into a near-perfect puck opera, the likes of which cannot be replicated.

This is not to say that improvements can’t be made to the sport. Stagnation leads to apathy, and it has become clear the NHL is content with the status quo. I’m here to help. With the NHL Playoffs nearly upon us (and the Winnipeg Jets clinging to playoff relevancy), it is time to invoke some changes to make the NHL playoffs, and the NHL in general – better:

1.       Playoff-seeding

It’s sad and perhaps prophetic that Brad Marchant has become the voice of reason in the NHL. The NHL playoff format is broken and deemphasizes regular season success. Move the playoff format to a straight 1-8 seeding and ignore the Divisional wild-card silliness.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Winnipeg Jets would face the top-ranked Vegas Golden Knights. That is equitable and fair-minded. However, the LA Kings’ reward for finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference would be to face the surging 5th-seed Edmonton Oilers. An unenviable fate that the NHL could easily fix.

Unfortunately, the NHL doesn’t seem to take umbrage with the current playoff format, despite most fans doing so. Below, I’ve lifted a playoff format:

  1.  8 teams qualify from each Conference.
  2. Teams will be seeded 1 through 8 in each Conference based on the number of points they earned during the regular season.
  3. Division leaders can be ranked no lower than 4th in their Conference, thereby guaranteeing the division leader with the fewer number of points home-ice advantage at least in the first round.

I understand the conventional wisdom that in order to win the Stanley Cup, you have to defeat the best teams – regardless of seeding. That said, winning in the regular season should carry more of an advantage. The divisional matchups “create rivalries” argument also seems like specious reasoning. If you don’t want to listen to me, then listen to the former face of the league, Sidney Crosby:

“I like 1-to-8 just because I think the regular season is as difficult as it is, teams should be rewarded,” Crosby told reporters. “That’s probably the best way to be rewarded, even though there isn’t a ton of difference. I like that version a little bit better.”

2.       Tweak 3-on-3 overtime

Congratulations NHL coaches, you’ve made something fun to watch, nearly unwatchable. You’re the DC universe of professional sports.

At its best, the 3-on-3 overtime encapsulates all the pinnacles of offensive hockey: kinetic energy, nonstop action, star players making transcendent plays, and unpredictable outcomes.

However, through 7/8ths of the season, 522 games have gone past regulation and 32.2% of those games have ended in a shootout.

That means nearly a third of 3-on-3 overtime play results in a coin-flip shootout. Why? Teams have adopted a much more conservative approach to 3-on-3; opting for a far less entertaining ‘puck control’ and cycling approach. The result – more shootouts, a result I think we can all agree is not ideal.

The good news? We don’t need to abandon this concept altogether. Let’s institute some mechanisms to prevent the meandering 200 ft. cycle-a-thon this has become. Once a team has entered the offensive zone, they cannot carry (or pass) the puck back out voluntarily. This would force teams to scheme for 3-on-3 offensive and defensive zone time. You’re welcome NHL.

3.       Stop fighting after clean hits

The debate over fighting in hockey has been chewed over plenty, so I won’t masticate here. Rather, I’ll sink my teeth into a subset of fighting – ‘the clean-hit fight’. Jacob Trouba is ostensibly the lightning rod of this blight, as his open ice hits have become cannon fodder for proponents on both sides of the discussion.

Fighting has its time and place, but defending oneself after a clean body check should not be the time or the place. I understand that mitigating toughness is a slippery slope, but there is a misguided omertà to players self-regulating a good hockey play. Spending 5 minutes in the penalty box for finishing a check does not seem like the proper motivation for promoting physical hockey.

The NHL needs to strictly enforce the instigator rule where any player that picks a fight after a clean hit is given 2 minutes, or can spend 5 minutes in the box by themselves. Again, I don’t want to legislate toughness out of hockey but rather avoid penalizing those that play the game the right way.

4.       Get rid of the 2-minute ‘bleed’ rule

I am both proud and ashamed that the sport I love has codified a rule specific to whether or not a player is bleeding. Imagine the NBA elaborating on the ‘flagrant foul’ to include an additional ‘bleeding bonus’. It’s preposterous.

The true folly is using the benchmark of ‘blood’ to judge the severity of an infraction. Under this precept, a player could high-stick an opponent with two hands to the back of the helmet, but because blood wasn’t drawn, it remains a lesser penalty than an accidental nick to the chin.

Players rubbing their faces searching for blood like they are in a Gillette commercial is high comedy, but the NHL would be better off jettisoning a rule best suited for mixed-martial arts. Any eight-year-old can tell you that bleeding doesn’t change the significance of a boo-boo.

5.       Get rid of Gary Bettman

Recently, Gary Bettman was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the “Sports Business Journal”. I can’t speak definitively as to the legitimacy or prestige of an SBJ award, but I did initially wonder if SBJ was the sports publication equivalent of “The Onion” or “Cracked”. Sadly, the organization is intentionally self-serious.

Bettman has fostered a festering hockey culture for decades. The least popular commissioner in professional sports has had 30 years at the helm, representing a lifetime of angst-ridden governance. Despite having grown fond of fans lustily booing him at every opportunity, an organization is only as successful as its leadership.

As of 2023, Bettman is the longest-serving active commissioner in professional sports. What initiatives, or tangible improvements has he brought to the game? A fresh perspective is needed.

Playoffs or not, does the Jets player core need changing?. dark. Next

Would some or all of these changes prove to be effective? Well, as the great Wayne Gretzky used to say: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. In this instance, it wouldn’t hurt the NHL to take some shots at trying to improve the game we love.