LAFAYETTE, LA — This morning, the Southern Professional Hockey League unveiled their playoff format for the 2018 Presidents Cup Playoffs. While the length of all playoff series remains best-of-three games, the first round will be something new to any pro hockey league in North America.
In the league’s new format, the top three teams will “draft” their first-round opponents. The Coffey Cup champions – the team with the best regular season record – will be able to select from a pool of teams finishing fifth through eighth in the season standings, followed by teams finishing second and third.
“When I heard about it, it was from a gentleman from Austria… When he told me how it worked… this was the greatest thing ever. You literally won’t be able to stop talking about it,” said SPHL commissioner Jim Combs.
The top teams will broadcast their playoff selections live on the Sunday following the end of the SPHL regular season on April 8th, 2018. “Every team will have a pick party, and we’ll do it all at the same time… and we’ll find out who’s playing whom at that time,” Combs elaborated on how the 2018 first-round playoff matchups will be determined.
Opinions, predictably, are split between fans between an innovative way to seed playoff teams and single-a hockey gimmickry. Some of the fan comments pulled (anonymously) off of Facebook include:
- “What’s the harm? Best of three already makes it a wild card, but we know the reason is to keep costs down.”
- “Where in the history of sports do you let a team, let alone THREE teams CHERRY PICK their opponents?”
- “This format is entirely too gimmicky for a legitimate professional league.“
- “Break the paradigm!. Different, new and can talk all season about what team we’ll have no problem taking out the first round.”
- “Huntersville is just too close to Charlotte. They’re sipping on that NASCAR water.”
- “Could be interesting. Definitely unique approach.”
- “Sounds like an article from The Onion.”
We can’t even agree here in The Sin Bin’s newsroom.
- “The new playoff format could lead to more interesting games. You could have teams who have dominated a specific team throughout the year picking them as a easy first prey since they have had their number all year.” – Justin Rieber (Evansville)
- “Allowing the teams to choose their opponents sets up more suspense.” Michele Horne (Mississippi)
- “How professional is it for a team to pick another playoff team?” – Dawne Walters (SPHL Features)
- “I like the idea to be honest. Even if it’s going to only be an SPHL thing.” – Matthew Harding (TSB Managing Editor)
Let’s re-emphasize what the commish said…
“You literally won’t be able to stop talking about it.” – Jim Combs
Just like when the league introduced three-on-three overtime; we all know how this “gimmick” worked out. Let’s not forget the switch to IIHF-style shootouts where coaches can send out skaters for multiple attempts if five rounds aren’t enough to get a result.
Like the shootout format change two seasons ago, this shift in postseason procedures has its roots abroad. The Erste Bank Ice Hockey League – Austria’s top pro league – adopted the format beginning in the 2013 postseason. Also, the Swedish Hockey League (h/t Alex Gerwitz) used the format until expansion in the 2013-14 season.
Keep in mind there are exactly zero professional hockey leagues above the SPHL use a traditional seeding format for their postseason matchups. The NHL, AHL, and ECHL all use divisional-based playoff formats for their first two rounds. Going with division playoffs in the ECHL and AHL make more sense due to travel costs, but the NHL’s format is routinely panned by fans, especially last year when the Metropolitan division was far stronger in the Eastern conference than the Atlantic division.
One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.
So why not let the league’s top teams decide their own fate?
Let’s rewind the clock to April 2017 and predict what the Macon Mayhem would do with the option of choosing between the Mississippi RiverKings, Knoxville Ice Bears, Pensacola Ice Flyers, and Columbus Cottonmouths for their first-round opponent. Would coach Kevin Kerr still elect to play the Snakes in Columbus for the entire series (remember, Macon didn’t have arena availability for the first round) – a surging team with a hot goaltender in Mavric Parks they went 4-2-2 against during the regular season? Perhaps the Mayhem would have picked the Ice Bears, a team in a downward spiral due to injuries and suspensions – which proved to be easy pickings for Peoria.
If the Mayhem picked Knoxville, perhaps the Fayetteville FireAntz would take Columbus with the second pick, and Peoria chooses the RiverKings over Pensacola – leaving the Huntsville Havoc with the Ice Flyers in the first round.
Macon would have probably rolled Knoxville and the Snakes – last season’s feel-good team after the tragic bus crash back in January – could have ridden their hot goaltending past a slumping FireAntz team into the semifinals.
We literally would not have stopped talking about this.
I like the idea of a league taking chances and making a paradigm shift away from established tradition. Three-on-three overtime worked. The shootout changes worked. I’m willing to give Combs and the SPHL owners the benefit of the doubt and see how this plays out in March and April.