Oilers run boosts idea of bigger playoffs

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

Whether the Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup or fall to the Carolina Hurricanes, they may change hockey as we know it.

Just as real hockey people look at the post-season events on the ice, the owners look at post-season events off the ice.

And what they see is a financially lucrative post-season from an eighth-place hockey team.

Last July, the Toronto Sun released the details of a series of proposals from NHL executive vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell. One of those proposals was a 20-team playoff system.

The 20-team system would incorporate a week-long "play-in" round which would see the seventh -- through tenth-place teams battle for two playoffs spots. The top six teams would be given byes.

The NHL didn't accept the recommendation, primarily because, with an Olympic year coming up, it didn't seem feasible to add a week to the already long season.

But there were two other reasons. One had to do with tradition. Some felt that a short play-in round never has been a part of hockey, so there is no need to do it now.

The other had to do with precedent. Even teams as low as seventh or eighth rarely ever lasted more than a round or two in the playoffs. Why bring in ninth and tenth?

TWO-THIRDS THE NORM

But the first of those observations was countered by hockey's history of having two-thirds of the teams in the playoffs. When there were six teams, four advanced to the post-season. When there are 30 teams, why not let 20 advance?

And now, the Oilers have shattered the suggestion that an eighth-place team can't do well in the playoffs.

In Vancouver, the Canucks finished only three points behind the Oilers. As a ninth-place team, they would have faced Edmonton in the play-in round. Perhaps the Canucks could be where the Oilers now find themselves.

In the east, the race was even closer. Both the Atlanta Thrashers and Maple Leafs finished two points behind the eighth-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

One home playoff date might not be a big deal to the Thrashers, but to the Leafs, it would mean something like $3 million.

There is considerable sentiment at the NHL's board level that the playoffs should become a 20-team extravaganza. That's hardly a surprise. At the board level, there's always strong support for anything that shows a profit.

But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doubts that the concept will receive the necessary support. In a one-on-one discussion last week, he said there is too much concern that teams which finish seventh and eighth could lose money from the concept.

The play-in round would be a best-of-three. Theoretically, a team could advance to the post-season, but get only one home playoff date. Owners shudder at such a thought.

But even though Bettman can influence a vote, he can't control it, and in this case, he is a bit biased. He strongly opposes seasons that drag on to late June and, as a result, strongly opposes the NHL's involvement in the Olympics.

For the same reasons, he doesn't want to add a week to the season to accommodate a play-in round.

The answer of course is to start the season a couple of weeks earlier. In Canada, the only place in North America where the NHL really matters anymore, there would be no objections. Junior hockey would be underway. The kids would be back in school and in many parts of the country, the leaves would be off the trees.

But Bettman doesn't like the idea of starting earlier, feeling that US audiences would be affected negatively.

At some point this summer, the matter will come up for further discussion. It may or may not receive approval.

But if it does gain acceptance, you can thank -- or blame, depending on your point of view -- this year's post-season performance by the Oilers.


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