Top NHL teams should pick their playoff opponents

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For a league that has already hired a commissioner away from the National Basketball Association and placed franchises in cities far better suited for hoops than pucks, it's time to borrow from basketball yet again. The NBA's developmental league has come up with a novel twist on the playoffs that would be perfect for the National Hockey League: allowing teams to pick their postseason opponents.

Now, it's not as radical as it sounds. The top finishers in each conference get to select from the lower-ranking qualifiers in the first round only. In the NHL's case, let the three division winners in each conference pick from the teams that round out the playoff field. The first-place team would get to choose from the teams finishing fifth through eighth. The second-place finisher would then pick from the remaining teams, and the third-place team would be left with two teams to choose from. The fourth-place finisher—not a division winner—would still get home-ice advantage in the opening round and would face whichever team was not selected by the three teams that earned the right to choose.

In a day and age when the marketing of a product is almost as important as the product itself, the NHL has an opportunity to stand out from the professional-sports crowd by shaking up a playoff format that could use a makeover. And that's why the idea makes so much sense for the National Hockey League.

In many years, there likely wouldn't be any deviation from the standard first-round playoff matchups. But so what? Maybe there would be, and the only way to find out would be to give the better teams the opportunity to weigh their options based on a number of key factors: head-to-head season series, injuries, momentum, travel, and the potential box-office draw of particular opponents. It's a chance for the NHL to make something out of nothing, and it's a golden opportunity to garner some attention in the days leading up to the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The league—with plenty of help from television networks—has done a masterful job of making the trade deadline, the annual entry draft, the first day of free agency, and the Winter Classic outdoor game into four of the biggest days on the hockey calendar. Imagine the attention that would be paid to an NHL playoff-selection show on the final night of the regular season. The league could—and probably should—even do it in conjunction with the annual draft lottery, keeping the good teams and the bad involved. The unveiling of the playoff pairings would be captivating television as the entire league watched and waited to see who'd get picked and why. Canadian cities with playoff-bound teams would come to a standstill during the process, and any added playoff buzz the league can generate south of the border would have to be seen as something positive.

Instead of letting the math take care of itself and having the standings determine the opening-round playoff matchups, there would always be that chance that some team would go off the board and select what it felt was a more favourable opponent. Just think of the instant motivation those lower-seeded teams would be given knowing that they'd been chosen because the top finishers felt, in most cases, they represented the best chance for advancing to the second round.

In the case of the Vancouver Canucks, they'd have to factor travel into their decision-making process. If all else was equal and it came down to playing an Alberta-based team or one in the Deep South, the Canucks might want to avoid a bunch of lengthy flights. But teams like Nashville and Phoenix—if they were ever in a position to pick their opponent—might consider opting for a team that was sure to sell tickets and put people in the seats. In some years, perhaps a key injury to a star player late in the season would be enough to make that a team others would want to target.

If the system were in place this year, you'd likely see teams do whatever they could to avoid a matchup with the Anaheim Ducks. And why not? The Ducks, just two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, are as hot as anyone in hockey, having won nine of 10 games heading into the final week of the season.

Under the current system, division winners get home-ice advantage but little else as a reward for a successful regular season. Giving those teams a chance to choose their opening-round opponents would be a bonus for them and would provide another layer of intrigue for what's to come on the road to the cup. On top of that, the conference champs with the first pick would get a leg up on playoff preparation, knowing well in advance whom they'd select long before it was revealed.

Purists would surely shudder at the suggestion of giving teams options heading into the playoffs. But in these economic conditions, now is not the time to maintain the status quo. This is a league that has teams in nontraditional hockey markets and has games that are decided in shootouts. The National Hockey League has to be progressive and bold and do what it can to be a leader in professional sports. With very little effort, the league could toss a unique wrinkle into its postseason format—one that would have no downside for the teams or the fans.

When it comes to the playoffs, it should be all about choices.

So go ahead, NHL—make the right one.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver's all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca.

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