10 insights and observations: Would a play-in tournament work for NHL?

·15 min read

Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every Thursday, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world.

This week we look at playoff formats, Tom Wilson, Jesse Puljujärvi, Trevor Moore, five forwards on the power play and more.

There's no plans for the NHL to change their playoff format, but it's fun to think about the possibilities. (Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
There's no plans for the NHL to change their playoff format, but it's fun to think about the possibilities. (Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

1. Should NHL adopt a play-in tournament?

As the NHL season plows along, the NBA is in the midst of their play-in tournament. The tournament has received mixed reviews from players, but the ratings were more than enough for the league to continue it for the time being. Naturally, that has led to a conversation about whether the NHL should adapt the same format.

There are several sides to consider here.

The first is the business of the game. If it brings in higher ratings and with it, revenue, then it has to be a consideration. That is just the simple truth. The league is certainly not in a place where it can turn its nose up to a potential revenue generator.

The second thing to consider is the net revenue. The NHL season is already long and quite meaningless in many cases, and this would just make it even more so. We have known the top eight teams in the East since November. The West has a reasonable playoff race forming but this isn’t exactly a "clear your schedule every night" race. Is a few days of concentrated ratings worth watering down your regular season even more? Is that cutting your nose to spite your face? That has to be a consideration.

The third is the actual format and results. The NHL is far more random than the NBA, especially in a one-game scenario. The NBA has tipped the odds in favor of the seven and eight seeds, but in a star driven league, the ability of a Kevin Durant or Trae Young to take over a game and almost singlehandedly win it is quite evident. Both of their teams won their first games without much hassle. In hockey that’s negligible at best. If Dallas is playing Vancouver, one team has J.T. Miller, the other has Jason Robertson. It’s anyone’s guess. Maybe a goalie has a big game. It’s so random and it’s not rewarding the team that had a better season. This is a league where it’s far more likely the worst team can beat the best team on any given night compared to basically any other major sport. Ultimately, the playoffs should include the best teams in the league and I’m not sure a one game play-in tournament helps them achieve that.

2. Bring back a conference playoff format

There are more subtle changes that would be beneficial, though. The first is a return to a conference playoff format, rather than a division playoff format.

This always seemed like a case of, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Part of the reason for this switch was to encourage rivalries, but I’m not sure that has played out in real life. Are the Leafs and Bruins rivals because of this? The Panthers and Lightning? So on and so forth. They already existed. And while you can say they are more likely to play each other due to this format, which is true, is the NHL burning through their best playoff matchups in the first round really the best for their overall business? If anything, the playoffs get watered down early instead of ramping up late.

The last two Stanley Cup finals featured a 10th-seeded Dallas team followed by an 18th-seeded Montreal team. The year before, 12th-seeded St. Louis won it all. There’s a more honest path to a conference format, rather than a fifth-seeded Leafs team likely playing a ninth-seeded Lightning team while a currently 13th-seeded Oilers team might play a 17th-seeded (at the moment) Vegas team. It's luck of the draw and the division at that point. There will always be divisional issues to some degree and there should always be a division for travel purposes, and yes, even rivalries. But they don’t have to throw the entirety of the playoffs for a loop.

3. The case for three-point games

The last thing I’ll note about all of this is something I’ll always fight for, which is three-point games. Reward regulation wins in the regular season. I don’t even mind a loser point. But a 3-on-3 overtime win, or a shootout win, is simply not the same as a regulation win. It’s just not.

Football, basketball and baseball have the luxury of just rolling with a simple win-loss equation. You are exactly what your record says you are. There is some evidence that it wouldn’t drastically change the overall standings, which I think is good. What it would really do is push teams harder to win in regulation rather than wait it out for overtime or a shootout.

If nothing else, it mentally changes the approach players, coaches and teams will have towards regular season games and that would, hopefully, lead to a better product. You don’t want to implement a system that completely changes the league, but it tweaks just enough to notice a difference and hopefully produce some results for the better.

4. Trevor Moore flying under the radar

The Leafs have gotten a ton of headlines from their Jack Campbell acquisition as he has ascended to the No. 1 spot in net. One of the reasons the Kings were comfortable making that trade in the first place is that they wanted to clear room for Cal Peterson to play and they couldn’t exactly move on from Jonathan Quick’s contract at that time (with a year left on his contract at this point, they probably can moving forward). They also got a good player in return, which much like the player itself, has flown under the radar.

Trevor Moore leads the league in shorthanded goals and is enjoying a career year with 15 goals and 45 points through 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high of 23 (which did come in just 56 games). The 27-year-old played college for a Denver University team that featured a number of NHLers over his three seasons there, including Troy Terry, Will Butcher, Danton Heinen and Dylan Gambrell.

He was undrafted and signed on with Toronto, where he won a Calder Cup in the AHL, putting up 17 points in 20 playoff games, second on the team to Andreas Johnsson’s 24. The next year he earned time with the Maple Leafs and the season after he was traded to the Kings. What followed was the shortened COVID season, and now his “breakout” year.

Moore's playing on a strong two-way line with Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson, which works well for his detailed, speed game. And speed really is the name of his game. If he has a step on you, it’s over. If he is just a step behind you, it’s also probably over. Poke the puck up here and it’s a free breakaway.

Earlier this season against his old team, he’s multiple steps behind both defenders – and it doesn’t matter.

Moore has had a heck of a journey, but he has become quite the player in the NHL.

5. Tom Wilson keeps getting better

Tom Wilson was quite the lightning rod leading up to the draft in 2012. This was peak “we want the next Milan Lucic” time in the league. Wilson was coming off a 27 point, 49 game, 141 penalty minute season for the Plymouth Whalers (who also had J.T. Miller and Rickard Rakell). He went 16th overall, right after a combination of Mikhail Grigorenko, Radek Faksa, Zemgus Girgensons and Cody Ceci. The next three picks were Tomas Hertl, Teuvo Teravainen and Andre Vasilevskiy.

To say Wilson followed with a modest start to his NHL career would be an understatement. Through his first four seasons (where he played 82 games three times, and 67 the other), he never topped more than seven goals or 23 points. The following season, things started to change. He posted career highs in goals (14) and points (35), but it was the playoffs when he really announced his arrival with 15 points in 21 games as the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

He was rewarded with a big contract (six years, $31 million) that at the time seemed puzzling, but has been worth every penny. He has scored 20-plus (or played to that pace) in every season since and is at a career high 51 points this season. Wilson is one of the few players in the league who not only can change a game physically, but he legitimately will and does. It doesn’t get much attention outside of Washington, but he is a regular penalty killer and has been for years. He is skilled enough to play alongside their other skill players and make them better. Last week Wilson went down and just sniped a game-winner clean, on the road, in the third period against Pittsburgh.

That’s Tom Wilson. He gets a ton of headlines for the antics and dangerous hits, which are certainly parts of his game, but he is a good hockey player, too.

6. There's a lot to like about Jesse Puljujärvi

Another hotly debated draft pick who's starting to turn into a real player? Jesse Puljujärvi. The difference between Puljujärvi and Wilson is that he was not particularly hotly debated at the time he was selected. If anything, people were shocked that Pierre-Luc Dubois was selected before him and many thought that he was a gift for Edmonton at No. 4. Of course, as we know now, Matthew Tkachuk went two picks later and he is a stud. Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy went a few picks after as well. But that is neither here nor there. Puljujärvi can play, too. He’s still just 23 but his production and play is trending up, offering a skillset of size and a good enough pace to capably play alongside Connor McDavid and offer him something. Look how quickly he shifts on the forecheck here to create a turnover and prime scoring chance, using his speed and length to disrupt Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

He’s not afraid to do the dirty work, which is thankless. McDavid makes the play and Tyson Barrie gets the goal, but watch how Puljujärvi makes the read, skates right through traffic and parks himself in front of the net, creating space in the middle of the ice for McDavid to operate while also screening the goalie.

There is a lot to like about him if you watch the little plays in his game and how he’s able to use his speed and size. The underlying numbers suggest a breakout is coming at some point. But he also needs to finish better and I’m sure he’d be the first one to say that. Against Colorado last week he missed two 2-on-1 one-timers put on a platter for him. But you keep getting those chances and they will go in. it seems like he has been around forever but he’s yet to even play 300 games in the league. The best is yet to come but the signs are encouraging.

7. Be patient with the big guys

Wilson and Puljujärvi are two examples. Previously in this column we discussed Lawson Crouse, who would be another. Valeri Nichushkin was another we discussed. Tage Thompson is blowing up this year. Alex Tuch took some time to become the beast that he is today. Anthony Mantha had a rocky start in Detroit before putting it together. Even J.T. Miller and Sam Bennett are debatably part of this group of big, skilled players who were all drafted in the first round took a little longer to develop.

But as they have put it together, they have become high impact players on the ice. Only Puljujärvi and Wilson were not traded by the original team that drafted them, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying in the case of Puljujärvi. We hear all the time that bigger players take longer to put it together (grow into their body, fill out, adjust their coordination, etc.), and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that is generally the case.

There are always exceptions – guys like Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, Matthew Tkachuk and Alex Ovechkin were all instantly good. Even Brady Tkachuk was an impact player almost immediately. But development is not linear across the board. You have to be patient with the big guys as they figure out their bodies and actually help them develop along the way. But there is a clear pay off if either you a) do that, or, b) take advantage of a team that grows frustrated and just wants to move on.

8. Where does Sam Girard fit in Avalanche's future plans?

On the other side of things, I am fascinated to track what becomes of Sam Girard in Colorado. The talented, still just 23-year-old averages under a minute on the power play per game – and for obvious reasons that are through no fault of his own.

He happens to play on the team with arguably the best power-play quarterback in the league. If that isn’t enough, they also have Devon Toews, too. Toews averages more power-play time per game than Girard as well.

On the penalty kill, Girard is an afterthought, especially with Josh Manson now in the fold. That essentially limits him to a 5-on-5 player making $5 million per year with no foreseeable future of playing special teams with Cale Makar locked in long-term and Toews signed for at least two more years. Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Darcy Kuemper and Valeri Nichushkin are all pending UFAs, among others. Artturi Lehkonen is a notable RFA. If Bowen Byram could stay healthy, he is ready for more. Girard is a good player and $5 million is not a ton of money for a good 23-year-old defenseman, but at some point, the Avalanche are going to have to ask themselves how much they can really squeeze out of a guy they are only really playing 5v5.

He’s still third among their defensemen in ice time overall so it’s not like he’s barely playing, but he was picked on a bit in the playoffs last year and this season they are boasting a deeper group. I’m fascinated to track his ice time and overall play in the playoffs as the Avalanche go for broke this year before having to make a number of difficult decisions.

9. Five forwards on the power play

Two teams on very different ends of the standings are starting to mix in the same approach on the power play, which is running five-forward units. NHL Network analyst Mike Kelly had a good breakdown of it.

I remember years ago when Daniel Alfredsson got absolutely burned shorthanded off the rush by Jason Pomminville in overtime on what was the series-winning goal between the Sabres and Senators. There was lots of talk back then about this being an example of why you don’t use forwards on the point on the power play. Things have changed since then, of course, as lots of forwards are more than adequate defending off the rush.

As early as roughly 15 years ago, good forwards could legitimately target a forward playing defense off the rush and roast them with ease. That is not nearly the layup it once was. As early as minor hockey development, forwards will focus more on skating backwards, taking 1-on-1 reps on defense in practice and knowing how to do a bit of everything. At the same time, I’m not sure we’ll see a full on trend sweep the league here. There’s no world where guys like Makar, Roman Josi, Victor Hedman, Adam Fox, John Carlson, Morgan Rielly and Kris Letang, to name a few, should not be on the top power-play unit. But if you don’t have a high-end quarterback? It’s worth a shot.

10. Farewell to a legend

I want to congratulate Jerry York, the winningest coach in NCAA hockey history, five-time NCAA champion, National Hockey League and USA Hockey Hall of Famer, on his retirement at the age of 76. York coached four Hobey Baker Award winners, 17 NHL first-round draft picks, 12 Stanley Cup champions and countless other players who went onto play in the NHL.

He’s retiring with 1,123 victories, the most ever. To put that in perspective, Ron Mason is second with 924. NCAA hockey is a different beast than the NHL, AHL and even CHL. The schedule is reduced, there is way more time spent working out and preparing for games, the prospects and players are a little older, but the environment and caliber is awesome. The NCAA hockey tournament is a blast, and something I wish got more attention in general (congratulations Denver!), but that’s a story for a different time. For now, just take a second to recognize a coach that just finished a heck of a career.

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