Commentary: ECAC Should Approve 12-team Playoffs

When the athletic directors of the 12 ECAC Division I Men’s programs meet today at Yale, they will be deciding on a proposal to expand the playoff field to include all 12 teams. This move, endorsed by the 12 league coaches, would give six teams home ice in the first round of the playoffs, and create a different scenario in Lake Placid.

Instead of the final five scenario used in recent years, there would be two quarterfinals on a Friday, followed by two semifinals on a Saturday and a championship game on a Sunday. In this scenario, the top two seeds remaining would receive a bye into the semifinals after the first round of the playoffs.

Should the athletic directors vote to institute this change?

You bet they should.

There are some opposing views to this idea and that’s not a surprise. People have pointed out that it could “devalue” the regular season if all teams make the playoffs. If a team finishes the season with only one win in the ECAC, why should it deserve to go the playoffs?

The ECAC is suffering, and will continue to suffer from its present perception. Something must be done to change that perception. People will remember more how many teams you get in the tournament rather than why it’s a bad structure. If the times change, then the playoff structure changes, it’s as simple as that.

In turn, would there be the battles that there were towards the end of the regular season as we have seen in past years? What kind of excitement would there have been during the final weekend of this past regular season, when
Vermont was sitting on pins and needles waiting for the Colgate-Rensselaer game to finish?

And, detractors ask, with all teams in the playoffs, do those extra games hurt the PairWise Rankings of the top teams if they have to play the bottom teams?

But, given the state of the ECAC, this is the best possible move this league can take at this point in time.

It’s already been pointed out that the experience of the playoffs and Lake
Placid bodes well for future teams and gives them the “hunger” to get back to Placid to win it all the following seasons.

It’s also been mentioned that there is a financial incentive to moving towards this scenario. An extra set of home games for another team is a definite positive. Six teams going to Lake Placid means one more set of fans get to experience Lake Placid as well. There is no doubt that the financial reasons make this a viable scenario.

But, what has not been mentioned, and why this is a good move for the ECAC, is the big picture of the ECAC within college hockey at the moment.

Look at the background of the last major playoff structure change (I will exclude the change to best-of-three).

A few years ago, the ECAC went to a Final Five format, eliminating the
first round Tuesday play-in games, and going to five first-round matchups, with the five winners advancing to Lake Placid. The lowest two seeds play on Thursday evening for the right to face the top seed, while the other two teams played each other in the semifinals.

What was the impetus for this change? Was it because of finances? Was it because of more teams in Lake Placid? I don’t think that was the reason why.

The underlying reason for this change was so that the top seed would have the best shot at advancing to the Frozen Four to win the NCAA Championship.

Thus, with the rule in place giving a team a bye in the NCAA Tournament for winning its regular season and tournament titles, the Final Five format was perfect. Why? You are giving your best team a better opportunity at getting to the Frozen Four by only having to play one game instead of two.

It makes perfect sense doesn’t it? Your No. 1 seed will most likely be the regular season title winner, and that team will have to take on a team that played the night before while that team rested. Of course, that team still had to win two games, but the chances are increased of getting to the final game. And, also in that instance, even if the No. 1 seed didn’t win the title, the odds of moving up in the selection criteria are increased, giving the regular season title winner a better chance at a bye.

All in all, the Final Five format gave a conference’s best team the better
opportunity at getting a bye and moving to the Frozen Four, thus having a shot at winning the national championship.

This past season, that all changed. With the addition of the automatic bid to the MAAC Champion, a bye was no longer automatically given to a team winning its regular season and tournament title. So, a key benefit of the Final Five concept was no longer valid.

This year, the ECAC, for the first time ever, only placed one team in the NCAA Tournament. That had to be a disappointment for all associated with the ECAC — its athletes, coaches, administration, and fans. For a league with a proud tradition, it is obvious, given last season’s NCAA Tournament and the perception of the ECAC within college hockey, that something must be done.

Pull these two elements together and what should be the main focus of the ECAC at this present time?

Everybody would love to see one of their teams win the NCAA Championship, but in order to do that, you need to increase your odds. But that should not be the focus of the ECAC given the state of the conference within college hockey at the moment.

With a 12-team tournament, one team has a shot. Two teams have a better shot. So what should be the focus? Getting at least two teams into the NCAA Tournament — that is the focus.

How can you accomplish that? How can you structure your league to do so? What’s the best way to get at least two teams in the tournament?

The answer, for the ECAC, is devising a 12-team playoff format.

All of this is, of course, theoretical. You still have to play the games.

But let’s revert back to the Final Five format for a moment. Theoretically, a
team facing a semifinals opponent that has played the night before should have an edge to get to the next game — the final.

With a 12-team playoff format, a top-seeded team should defeat its first-round opponent and also move on to the semifinals via the bye. From there, you rest while both of your opponents will be playing the night before. But under this format, the same thing applies for the No. 2-seeded team.

It’s the same exact theory as the Final Five, but you now have two teams that have a better shot at advancing to the championship game, and of getting into the NCAA Tournament.

Mind you, this all depends on a variety of factors, but it doesn’t change the
theory behind it.

In order for this to happen, two ECAC teams need to be above or hovering around the cutoff point of 12 teams. But if one team needs help, would this do it for them?

If you are the ECAC, put aside the reasons why people say it shouldn’t be done. Put aside the fact that the regular season may not mean as much and focus on what’s important for the ECAC as a whole — getting the recognition and changing the perspectives of many people.

Do your best to get as many teams into the NCAA Tournament as possible, something you have to do because no one is sure when the field will be expanded to 16.

And let’s be honest, the ECAC can’t wait for that day to come right now. The ECAC is suffering, and will continue to suffer from its present perception. Something must be done to change that perception. People will remember more how many teams you get in the tournament rather than why it’s a bad structure. If the times change, then the playoff structure changes, it’s as simple as that.

Right now the ECAC is getting killed. The ECAC has to act, and this is the way to do it.


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