As the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils do battle for the Stanley Cup, the eighth-place team in one conference against the sixth-place team in the other, we should take a moment to ponder: What's the point of the regular season?
Do we really need to slog through 82 games, dilute the product with taxing back-to-back home-away tilts, increase opportunity for injury and encourage fatigue only to learn in the end that it all carries very little meaning? Pucks drop from early October through early April, games shooting by in rapid-fire fashion, all to eliminate 14 of 30 teams from the postseason derby. Then and only then is it, "Game on."
Kings-Devils qualifies as an extreme. It's the first time in the last decade two teams have emerged from in or near the conference basement and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. But you can almost bet on seeing one team come out of nowhere. Five times in the last nine years the finals have included a sixth seed or worse. So when the Sabres are slumping in November and Lindy Ruff's in a lather you can bet there are 20 players in the locker room thinking, "Coach, get a grip." Of course, you have to make the postseason to come out of nowhere, but surely you get the point.
High placement during the regular season should carry greater reward than the possibility of one extra home game, which is really little reward unless we're talking about a franchise's financial bottom line. Three higher seeds were ousted at home in the NHL's conference quarterfinals. The emphasis on defense and blocked shots has turned the league into a dice roll. Teams that excel in the regular season shouldn't suddenly find themselves on near-even footing with teams that barely qualified for postseason play. At the least, how about finish eighth and you don't get a home game? Finish seventh and you get one. And so on. Eliminate the underdog's mind-set of swaying the series by stealing one of the first two road games. The task should be far more daunting than it is.
The NHL hardly has a monopoly on regular-season folly. Major League Baseball voted before the season to add yet another wild card team, bringing to 10 the number of postseason qualifiers. Apparently 162 games isn't enough to decide who's playoff worthy and who isn't. Don't feed me the spiel that a fifth playoff qualifier in each league adds late-season excitement, brings more teams into the mix, allows the television networks to wring a few more bucks out of their rights-holder fees.
What it really does is permit another less accomplished club the opportunity to knock off a team that earned the right to be there. Had the new format been in use last year the Atlanta Braves make the playoffs instead of falling victim to one of baseball's memorable late-season collapses. Yuck.
In an ideal set-up, the longer the regular season the fewer the number of playoff qualifiers. The NFL plays 16 games to whittle 32 teams to 12. Baseball plays 162 to trim 32 to 10. And then there's the NBA and NHL, where 82 games are employed to reduce the field to 16.
Unless the regular season offers more incentives, there's no point in playing endless games to determine who moves on. The NBA's lockout-driven 66-game campaign would suffice if spread over the season's typical time frame. Every NHL team could play a home-and-home against each other, 58 games all told, before getting on to the postseason. It sure beats paying $100 to watch your team plodding through its third game in five nights.
One way or another the regular seasons should mean more than they do. To some, Kings-Devils resonates as a great story. But really it's evidence of a flawed system that rewards regular-season mediocrity.