Sports leagues’ tiebreaking procedures are often complicated, but in the NHL’s case, they apparently weren’t complicated enough. As of 2017, the NHL had four tiebreakers applicable at the end of the season: non-shootout (so regulation or overtime) wins, points earned in head-to-head games (minus an extra home game if uneven), and overall goal differential.
Those have worked in the past, but there’s a chance that the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers (they of recent controversy) could wind up tied in all three criteria (if the Flyers lose by two goals to the New York Rangers in their final game, and if the Panthers win their two final games in shootouts), so the league has decided to invent an extra tiebreaker:
NHL announces Extra Game if teams are tied for final playoff spot. pic.twitter.com/ydtIy1Atbh
— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) April 6, 2018
Settling things with an extra game rather than an additional tiebreaker isn’t necessarily a bad idea, and it’s something that’s worked out pretty well for MLB. However, it could possibly leave the winning team at a disadvantage in the playoffs thanks to that extra game of wear and tear (plus less rest), so there are pros and cons to doing this instead of just adding a few more layers of tiebreakers. The even more curious part is the decision to come up with this so late in the season, though, rather than actually planning for this all along. Three tiebreakers aren’t a whole lot, and just because more haven’t been needed in the past, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
Let’s consider how other leagues handle it. The NFL and AFL had one-game playoffs before their 1970 merger, as did the old AAFC, but the NFL now relies on a 12-step tiebreaking procedure (with the last step being “coin toss”). That makes sense, considering that football’s perhaps even more physical than hockey and that an extra game pre-playoffs would be an even bigger ask there. The NBA also had one-game playoffs at points, but now relies on a six-point procedure and “random draw” if that doesn’t separate the teams. MLS has a nine-point procedure, with the last step being “coin toss,” and while the CFL used to play one-game playoffs (well, in the days predating the league’s official formation), it now has a 10-point procedure ending with a coin toss.
So, it should have been pretty clear that three tiebreakers wasn’t always going to be enough. And there should have been a decision made before the start of any given season on how to handle that, whether it meant adding additional tiebreakers and then a game, additional tiebreakers and then a coin flip, just a game or just a coin flip. Doing so right before it could happen isn’t a great look.
While the one-game playoff solution could turn out fine, it would have been better if everyone involved had known this was a possibility from the start. Changing the rules in the middle of a competition looks downright amateurish, and it presents potential problems for the league. And heck, maybe doing this ahead of time would have let them come up with a better name while they were at it:
The NHL naming the extra game “The Extra Game” is up there with the college football playoff being called the College Football Playoff
— J.R. Lind (@jrlind) April 6, 2018