The Hockey East Tournament really ought to be a lot of fun. After all, it’s a collection of teams, some of whom are amongst college hockey’s blue bloods, all vying for a conference tournament championship, bragging rights in the New England area, and of course an ever coveted auto-bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Yet, the tournament has suffered from lack of attention in recent memory. Attendance has suffered both on campus and at the TD Garden. This is in line with trends nationally, but it feels like a missed opportunity for the league with such strong local roots.
The result of this has been a retooling of the tournament. When Notre Dame left the league a little while ago, the league switched from the four round tournament to a three round tournament with the cut line at the eighth best team in the league. The upshot is that teams had to play their way to the tournament, and had to win a series in order to get to the single elimination games. It also meant that teams that, to put it delicately, shouldn’t have been playing at tournament time, didn’t have to play.
There are faults with that tournament format. Having to go from winning to a series to two single-elimination rounds at TD Garden seems asymmetrical, and leaves the most crucial parts of the tournament to single-elimination games, where, frankly, anything could happen.
A lot of those issues, come from the desire to play at TD Garden, and there are legitimate questions about whether playing at TD Garden, rather than on-campus, is in the league’s best interests. That said, the league chooses to play at the Garden, and with that choice in mind the league came up with a completely tolerable format to play.
That all changed with the announcement, as the league seemed to have taken many of the bad parts of the late part of the eight-team tournament, and many of the bad parts of the old 12-team format, and combined the two to create a tournament format that seems gimmicky, and possibly devalues the tournament even more.
Let’s be absolutely clear here: no one needs to see the last place team in the league play another game. The past three last place teams in the league combined for 23 points earned, which would have put that hypothetical team right at the cutline of the 2019-2020 tournament (if, of course, it were played). To put it another way, the strength of three years’ worth of cellar dwellers have the strength of a team that would have barely made the tournament, if at all. The difference between eighth place and eleventh is frequently an ocean, and this format exacerbates that difference.
So what’s the big deal? Well, playing a game involving a team that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in a Georgia summer of making the NCAA tournament without the auto-bid not only demeans the tournament, it also puts teams at risk. Games involving teams with little to lose have a tendency to devolve quickly into chaos, and what happens if a key player gets hurt on a team that might have a chance to make a legitimate run at the tournament?
And what if those teams do make it out of the wilderness into the quarterfinal? After all, it is a single elimination game. That just kicks the can down the curb, and puts the league at risk of having a bad game at a juncture where there is going to be a lot more attention. The league owes it to itself to showcase its best when it can.
And all of this doesn’t address the big issue that this simply isn’t a fair way of determining the league’s best team. It’s arguable if tournaments do that to begin with, but they aren’t going anywhere. But in order for a tournament to have legitimacy, it has to involve a reliable way to determine a winner. This doesn’t involve that. Anything can happen in a single elimination game, and that isn’t to give credit to the single-elimination format, but rather to say that chaos for chaos’ sake isn’t good for the tournament’s image. Series are a better way to make a determination of who deserves to advance, and if having a series comes at the cost of making the league’s bottom feeders stay home in March, then the choice should be clear.
At the end of the day, the league would probably say something along the lines of “win your games and don’t worry about this!!” and it’s hard to argue with that logic. All the league should consider is whether it is putting itself, and its tournament, in its best position to succeed. It’s questionable if it is with this format.