The NHL Playoffs Are Wildly Exciting And Yet Painfully Dumb

The NHL playoff system is not as dumb as $495 sneakers, but it's not great.
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There are two rounds left in the Stanley Cup playoffs, yet the marquee rivalry matchup, the one that featured the two best teams in the NHL during the regular season – the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins – is over.

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It was a series that lived up to everyone’s hopes, outside of anyone’s desire to see the Capitals finally get past their longtime nemesis, of course. Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 lead before closing the deal in Game 7, there was injury drama with Sidney Crosby, media hullaballoo, pretty much anything you could ask for. Certainly, anything NBC could ask for. Game 7 on Wednesday night was the most-streamed NHL game ever. On actual television, it was NBC Sports Network’s fourth-most viewed second-round game ever.

(Say that five times fast.)

Hockey fans may see things a little differently. As Mike DeCourcy put it in a column for Sporting News, “This would be like the NCAA Tournament selection committee matching two No. 1 seeds in the Sweet 16. On purpose. It’s like the NHL took all the dumb in Canada and all the dumb in the United States and mashed it together into one great pile of lunacy.”

From a sporting standpoint, it’s absolutely dumb that the NHL playoff format is to have what amounts to four tournaments featuring the top three teams from each division, plus wild cards drawn from the conferences. The secret of the NHL’s playoff system is that it’s not about determining a champion in the fairest way possible. It’s about getting as many viewers as possible, in order to make as much money as possible.

The first round of the playoffs is a carnival, with multiple games each night to watch. It’s arguably the most fun time of year to be a hockey fan, knowing that for at least the first week of it, the action is nonstop – especially now that the NHL staggers the start times to (at least tries to) avoid simultaneous intermissions. The stakes of the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final are obvious, and draw viewers even when the matchups are as decidedly unsexy as Penguins-Senators and Ducks-Predators.

The lull in the playoffs is the second round, and that’s where the NHL’s system is so stupid that it’s a work of genius. What better way to jazz up the worst part of the playoffs than by creating a system where that can be where you get the best matchup of the entire two months?

The format also gave us Rangers-Senators, Ducks-Oilers, and Blues-Predators, which would have been 5-6 in the East and 3-4 and 5-8 in the West. Those were not particularly enticing matchups, but that’s also a result of the first round playing out the way it did. The second round could have had Montreal-Ottawa and Calgary-Edmonton, which would have stunk for NBC but been wonderful for Canadian television. Nashville did pretty well, ratings-wise, but it’s no Chicago – that said, the Predators fully deserve to be where they are and have P.K. Subban on their team, so no complaining.

Come to think of it, the most boring part of the NCAA Tournament is the Sweet 16. The first weekend is all the trademarked Madness, the Elite Eight has the stakes of getting to go to the Final Four, and the semifinals and finals have obvious allure. Maybe the NCAA ought to take a look at hockey and see about giving us Duke-UNC in that spot.

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Because this is a sports business column, a word about those $495 sneakers from Big Baller Brand, the company started by Lonzo Ball’s father LaVar:

Some people are going to buy $495 sneakers just to say that they bought $495 sneakers. Other people are going to not buy $495 sneakers because they are FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY FIVE DOLLAR SNEAKERS!

What’s stupid here isn’t charging nearly $500 for a pair of shoes from a kid who hasn’t set foot in the NBA. Okay, that is stupid, but what’s really stupid is getting angry about this, which a lot of people did. Shaquille O’Neal had what was at least a well-meaning point about the effect of the price on kids – when Shaq’s own shoes were very modestly priced and of pretty good quality – but this is one of those situations where it’s actually fine to let the free market decide. Either LaVar Ball is a marketing genius for making some so-so shoes seem special, or he’s a complete dullard who will fall flat on his face in the business world. We’ll get to find out while wearing reasonably priced and comfortable kicks.

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