This week Major League Baseball announced the addition of a new round to the postseason.
Starting this season, two additional teams will make the playoffs, creating a 10-team tournament. Under the new format, the three division winners in each league will make the playoffs in addition to two wildcards. Those two wildcard teams will play in a one-game playoff to determine who advances to the Division Series to play the division winner with the best record.
Traditionalists will bemoan the loss of tradition or the watering down of the playoffs solely for TV and the almighty dollar. That's a given. However, there's no question that this change will lead to more meaningful regular season baseball and puts a premium on winning your division.
I, for one, hope Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna is paying attention to MLB's latest change to their postseason.
Notre Dame will be joining the conference in time for the 2013-14 season, and the assumption is that the Association will expand once more to get to an even number of teams at some point in the near future (Holy Cross? UConn?). With the addition of the Irish and possibly a 12th team, there will undoubtedly be changes to the Hockey East Tournament format.
The current Hockey East Tournament format -- a best-of-three quarterfinals at the higher seed's barn, followed by a single-elimination semifinals and title game -- has been around off and on since 1990. HEA toyed with single-elimination quarterfinals, two games and total goals and even a play-in, single-elimination quarterfinals format in the early 1990s before finally settling on the current format for the 1996 tournament.
The Hockey East Tournament is also the only college hockey conference postseason tournament that doesn't invite all conference members to participate, keeping home the two teams that finish at the bottom of the conference standings each year.
The current format, first used for the 1990 Tournament, has survived two separate waves of expansion (UMass in 1993 and Vermont in 2006), two title game venues (at BC and the Garden) and three Boston Garden name changes (Fleet Center, TD Banknorth Garden and TD Garden).
So it's my sincere hope that when Notre Dame and a possible 12th team joins the conference in time for the 2013-14 season, that changes to the current format are kept to a minimum.
I maintain that the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament at MSG jumped the shark when they started inviting all 16 teams to the tournament and DePaul and South Florida started showing up in NYC on a Tuesday afternoon. I much preferred the format that rewarded only the top 12 teams in the conference, providing some extra meaning to games at season's end when the bottom-feeders battled it out for a trip to the Garden.
Basically, the mindset in this day and age is that everyone deserves a trophy.
So if Bertagna and Hockey East insist on including all 11-12 teams in an expanded Hockey East Tournament in 2014, then I hope that HEA looks to MLB as an example of how to stage its postseason tournament.
Take this year for example. The top-seeded Eagles are rewarded with home ice against the 8th seeded UMass Minutemen, a team that took the regular season series 2-1-0. And while I have no doubt that Jerry York and the boys will deliver, and there is something for having control of earning the NCAA Tournament's no. 1 overall seed (by knocking UMass out as a TUC), hosting a team that took 2-of-3 from you during the year isn't that big of a reward for running the Hockey East regular season gauntlet, amassing 39 points, four points clear of second place UMass-Lowell.
What Hockey East should do is if they insist on including all 12 teams in an expanded Hockey East Tournament, they should stage these Wild Card-like, single-elimination games on the Tuesday before the Quarterfinals begin on Friday. Pit 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, and 8 vs. 9 against one another on a Tuesday night in a single-elimination, Wild Card format to advance to the Hockey East Quarterfinals. The top four seeds get the single-elimination, play-in game winners for their quarterfinals, best-of-three series on their home ice, and the rest of the tournament stays in tact.
Better yet, HEA should only include the top 10 teams of each year's standings, and pair 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 in a play-in game for the right to advance to the Quarterfinals.
For sake of argument, let's fast forward and add both Notre Dame -- who finished 12-13-3-0 in the top-heavy CCHA -- and Holy Cross to Hockey East for this season. Let's also slot Notre Dame into the no. 6 seed, below Merrimack but ahead of New Hampshire, and Holy Cross into the no. 12 seed.
Using the above tournament format, this year's Hockey East Tournament would have looked something like this:
Play-in round (single-elimination)
(7) New Hampshire vs. (10) Northeastern
(8) Providence vs. (9) Massachusetts
Eliminated: Vermont, Holy Cross
Hockey East Quarterfinals (best-of-three)
(1) Boston College vs. highest remaining seed from play-in round
(2) UMass-Lowell vs. lowest remaining seed from play-in round
(3) Boston University vs. (6) Notre Dame
(4) Maine vs. (5) Merrimack
With the semifinals and the championship remaining at the Garden.
This format solves a couple of key criteria to make it successful.
1) Puts a premium on finishing 1-2 in the regular season standings, as those teams would get the two teams left standings from the play-in round. This adds even more intrigue to the final weekend of the regular season, as teams would fight for not only the top seed but the #2 seed as well.
2) Adds an additional round of playoffs and high, made-for-TV drama for HEA's television partners given the single-elimination format of the play-in round.
3) Maintains the incentive for teams at the bottom of the league table to keep playing towards the end of the season in fear of missing the tournament entirely.
4) Eliminating the bottom two teams from the tournament, as well as eliminating two more from the play-in round betters the chances that a top seed will face a TUC in the Quarterfinals. Especially if HEA adds an Atlantic Hockey program like Holy Cross or UConn, both of whom will be fighting an uphill battle to competitiveness. This will help the top seeds further their NCAA Tournament resume, hopefully leading to more at-large berths for the conference.
5) Keeps the tournament's duration down to two weekends, which is consistent with today's format. I'm not a fan of the CCHA's 11-team tournament format that gives the top four seeds an extra weekend off. Top seeds should be playing meaningful college hockey games every weekend that help them carry that momentum forward towards the NCAA Tournament and the Frozen Four. Which, aside is probably a big part of why we've seen one National Champion come from the CCHA in more than a decade.
Extremely long story short, not everyone deserves a trophy. The Hockey East Tournament certainly has its flaws, but its far from broken. It would behoove Bertagna and Hockey East to make as few tweaks to the tournament format as possible when Notre Dame joins the fold. HEA can effectively use MLB as an example of how to add more teams, maintain the current tournament format and even enhance the meaning of the regular season, particularly over the last few weekend's as teams jockey for position at the top, middle and bottom of the conference standings.