Hockey East will retain its playoff format next season in which just the top eight teams will qualify.
The format was implemented last season after the league had used a format in which all 11 teams qualified.
At the annual American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Naples, Florida, in April, the Hockey East coaches had voted overwhelmingly in favor of returning to the 11-team format.
But University of Maine athletic director Ken Ralph said when the league’s athletic directors met last month, they decided to stick with last year’s format.
He explained that the athletic directors wanted to give the eight-team format more than just a one-year run.
“We wanted to get a couple years of data before we decided to change it,” Ralph said. “The feeling was that a one-year sample size wasn’t big enough in our industry.”
The primary reason the coaches preferred the 11-team setup was because they play an unbalanced schedule.
Each team plays a 24-game league schedule with two games against six teams and three games against four teams. The schedule is rotated every two years so teams will play a different set of teams three times.
University of Maine coach Red Gendron had pointed out that the coaches felt some teams benefitted from the fact the four teams they played three games against weren’t as good as the quartet of teams other clubs had the extra game with.
“When you come right down to it, that can lead to certain teams having a much better chance of making the playoffs because of who they played,” Gendron had stated.
Ralph sympathized with the coaches but pointed out that several leagues in all sports have unbalanced schedules.
Gendron had also pointed out that the coaches felt “you want to make policies in the best interest of the student-athlete” and players wanted to be involved in playoff games.
The playoffs also give teams a chance to atone for a sub-par regular season.
Ralph said he had mixed emotions.
“I don’t have a problem with making teams earn their way into the playoffs,” he said. “We have that situation in America East. Not every team makes the playoffs in some of our [AE] sports.”
But he also understands the coaches’ sentiments and said hockey is the type of sport where a team can make a deep playoff run after a poor regular season if it gets a key player back from injury or its goalie gets hot.
“There are very few sports like that,” Ralph said.
Under the previous format, which was used for five seasons, the top five teams received first-round byes and teams 6-through-11 played a three-game series at the home rink of the higher seeded team. The three winners advanced to the best-of-three quarterfinals.
The semifinals and championship game are played at TD Garden in Boston.
Among the six Division I leagues, Hockey East and the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association were the only ones that didn’t include all their teams in the playoffs.
Ralph explained that having all 11 teams involved means shortening the regular season by one week which can limit scheduling opportunities.
The league is taking a close look at the financial ramifications of the playoff formats and Ralph said Northeastern University actually lost money by hosting UMaine in a best-of-three quarterfinal series. NU swept the Black Bears.
The games drew 1,620 and 1,865 fans to Matthews Arena, which can hold 4,803.
“When you host a playoff game, you have to give the league a [financial] guarantee. Northeastern didn’t draw well enough to meet the guarantee so they had to write a check to the league to make up the difference,” Ralph said.
“It would have been better for them, financially, if they had come to our place and we would have loved to host them,” said Ralph.
One idea the coaches proposed was to have a play-in game on a Tuesday involving the bottom six seeds instead of a best-of-three series the following weekend with the three winners advancing to the quarterfinals on the ensuing weekend.
That would have enabled them to avoid losing a regular season weekend.
But Ralph said a bottom-six team could wind up playing six games in nine days between regular season games and Hockey East playoff games. And it could be problematic if outlying teams like Vermont and UMaine were involved because players on their teams or their opponents’ teams could wind up missing a week of school.