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The Playoffs: Existing Under a Separate Meritocracy

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Scott Stinson at Canada’s National Post had a thoughtful column this week on the phenomenon that is Leicester City. Leicester, whose entire roster costs less than what Manchester City paid for Raheem Sterling, leads the Premier League with just eight games to go. It started the season with 5000-to-1 odds at a championship.

It’s a hell of an underdog story, the kind that Biff Tannen would have pounced on. And Stinson sees something else: a triumph for meritocracy and fairness.

One of the things that makes Leicester so remarkable is the stage on which they are performing. The English Premier League is ruthlessly fair in the way it determines its champion, much unlike the leagues in North America, which are kind of terrible at it.

In the NHL, he points out, the playoffs a) weed out fewer than half the teams in the league; b) use a seeding system that doesn’t recognize some teams had a much harder schedule than others; c) throw the teams in a hat, shake it up, and see who can stand to play violent best-of-7 series for two months.

Who has the best, or most fair, playoff system, then? Those that don’t have one. England’s Premier League, for example, has the perfect laboratory conditions for fairness. Each of its 20 teams plays everyone else twice, home and away, and whoever has the most points at the end wins the league title.

Which also brings to mind Pablo Torre’s argument on ESPN’s Around the Horn. Earlier this week, Torre tried to make the case that losing the NBA Finals shouldn’t necessarily take away the Golden State Warriors’ mantle as the NBA’s greatest team should they win 73 (or more) games this season. He got roasted on ATH for taking this position, but his argument (sample size) isn’t far off from Stinson’s point.

And Stinson’s is an interesting argument, but it also presumes that fairness and meritocracy are what we really want in sports. Is that true?

Hockey, perhaps even more so than the NBA, makes for an interesting counterexample to Premier, because the playoff game is so assertively different from the regular-season game. Check it out in a few weeks: It’s basically a different sport.

Playoff hockey is much faster paced. Checking is no longer optional; it’s a strategy to wear down the other team, and even finesse guys are out there throwing hits. Scoring goes down; some scorers simply disappear. The emotional temperature goes way, way up: Which sport rules a “playoff brawl” search on YouTube?

And, of course, there is the wonder of endless overtime. In what other sport can you watch five hours of sudden-death play, and feel the mixed relief/thrill/despair of an overtime goal, and then have no one at work understand what you’re so excited about? Ahh, playoffs.

I may seem to be making Stinson’s case: There is plenty of chaos in playoff hockey, and a lot of it may seem to wash out meritorious play. But it’s important to recognize that in playoff hockey, the standard for merit changes. It’s a different game, and the stuff that got your team to the top of the regular-season standings may no longer work.

Does your team rely on one or two guys for scoring? They’re shut down. Does your team have a goalie and really nothing else? Prepare to live under siege. Does your team thrive on puck-handling and skill, but shrink when the game gets aggressive and chippy? See ya later.

So there is a grim meritocracy to the NHL playoffs…if you can think of Bear Grylls dragging himself out of quicksand, or chomping into a live salmon, as a sort of merit. Hockey is an inherently chaotic game, and in any given game, luck can play a large role. But for all the chaos inherent to the game, no one keeps winning unless they have a system that works. Nobody, not even an underdog, can fake its way to the Finals. If you won 12 games to get there, you’re doing something right.

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Photo from ESPN.com (AP Photo / Mark J. Terrill)

In 2012, the Los Angeles Kings started as the 8th seed in the Western Conference; they looked like chum. Instead, they beat the top three seeds in the West and won the Stanley Cup. Nobody understood it until then, but it became clear that the Kings have what it takes to win in the playoffs (turns out it’s “a franchise goalie, a franchise defenseman, a franchise center, and a nasty defensive system”) even when their regular-season records are mediocre. All they have to do is get in, and they’re a fearsome playoff foe.

None of this is to throw shade on Leicester or Premier. They exist under a separate meritocracy — where every team plays every other team twice, but some teams have players that are worth more than other teams. The NHL rewards something else: the ability to adapt and survive. Well, some people like camping from an RV. Other people want to be Bear Grylls.

thumb_Saqib-RahimSAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. Saqib was a 2015 Dat Winning Fellow.

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