By now you're probably aware of the proposal to move from a two-conference system to a four-division system, and also that they won't be doing it for next season (2012-13), but it could still happen for the following year (2013-14). (Here's a cool map of the proposed alignment.)
Ideally, there would be 32 teams, and I wouldn't be surprised if:
- They expand to Seattle and Quebec City.
- They move Phoenix to Hamilton.
Or some combination of the above. I don't buy the "second team in Toronto" thing unless they want to share the Air Canada Centre. Remember when Jim Balsillie came within a hairsbreadth of making Hamilton a reality? It could still happen, though I wouldn't advise any breath-holding.
So let's say they have 32 teams as that's much neater. Then 16/32 make the playoffs. But! I would only guarantee playoff spots to the top two teams in each division. And it wouldn't be a particular seeding either, just a spot. Teams with better records than you who happen to be in third or lower in their divisions will slot in ahead of you.
Then we do the whole playoffs as a pyramid and do highest-faces-lowest every round. Home-ice advantage would go to the higher seed. Probably would stick with the current (H: high, L: low) H H L L H L H format, but H H L L L H H (like in baseball) has it's travel-reducing advantages. I think it makes home-ice a bigger deal, though.
#1 vs #16
#2 vs #15
#8 vs #9
Subsequent rounds repeat in a like fashion, with the top-seeded survivor facing the lowest-seeded survivor and so on.
Such a system would help make it so the two best teams are more likely to play for the Stanley Cup. You could have Toronto vs. Montreal with this system, even though they would be in the same division.
Alternatively, we could go with a hybrid system (we all love that word "hybrid"!) where the first round is #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3 in each division, definitely including a CFL-like crossover rule where #5 or lower teams with unambiguously better records (unambiguously as in not tied for points*) can steal those #4 slots and play as if they were a member of that division.
Then after that first round, the survivors are regrouped by regular season record:
#1 of survivors vs #8 of survivors
#2 of survivors vs #7 of survivors
#3 of survivors vs #6 of survivors
#4 of survivors vs #5 of survivors
similar to the first system, repeating in a like fashion. The hybrid system has the advantage of encouraging divisional rivalries while still making it possible for the two best teams to meet for the Cup.
* - Bob McCown: "In the NHL, they give points for attendance!" That might need a re-think, too. I like shootouts, but perhaps winning them should only be worth an extra half-point.