COLUMN: Fix Your Playoff Format, NHL

Going into the 2013-2014, the NHL decided to go through a realignment.  This realignment moved the Red Wings and Blue Jackets into the Eastern Conference, and condensed what was once six divisions into four: 2 divisions in the East (Metropolitan and Atlantic) and 2 divisions in the West (Central and Pacific).

Although the realignment oddly placed 16 teams in the East and 14 teams in the West (which will be 15 teams beginning next year with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights) the realignment itself was all-in-all okay.  It emphasized rivalries within divisions, it allowed teams from different conferences to play each other twice a year, it minimized travel, and most importantly it made sure that teams in the Eastern part of the US were in the Eastern Conference and teams in the West were in the Western Conference, as seen in the graph below.

realignment

Unfortunately, with realignment comes a new playoff format.  The old playoff format was designed a little something like this: the top 3 seeds were reserved for the 3 division winners placed according to point total at the end of the season.  The final 5 teams were simply the top 5 non-division-winning teams in points at the end of the season.  That was it.  Simple, brief, to the point, little criticism.  It made sense.

The new playoff format…well…

You mean the playoff format where it might be ideal to finish fourth in your division rather than finish second?! A format that will likely take out 2 of the top 4 Stanley Cup contenders this year (Pittsburgh, Washington, Minnesota, Chicago) out of the playoffs by the end of round 2?!  That playoff format?!  Yeah, it stinks, and everyone knows it does.

Fix your playoff format, NHL.

For those of you still unfamiliar with the new playoff format that was put in place along with the realignment, I’ll supply a brief summary of how it works:

Each conference now has only 2 divisions instead of 3, as mentioned above.  The top 3 teams in each division are guaranteed to make the playoffs.  This leaves 2 wild card teams, which are the 2 teams who have the highest point total at the end of the season outside of the top 3 seeds in each division.  The division winner with the highest point total at the end of the season gets to play the lesser of the 2 wild card teams (based on points), and the other division winner gets the match-up against the superior wild card team (based on points).  The playoffs then begin as 2 “mini playoff brackets” in each conference: one consists of the top 3 teams from one division with a wild card team, and the other consists of the top 3 teams from the other division with the other wild card team.  In each case, the division winner plays the wild card team with home ice advantage, and the 2nd and 3rd place teams in the division play each other, with the 2nd place team having home ice advantage.  The winner of the 2nd/3rd seeds in each division then plays the winner of the division winner/wild card team in the 2nd round.  The conference finals then consists of the team that reigns victorious from each “mini playoff bracket.”   Then the winner of that series goes on to compete in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Below is a visual of how the format works, generally:

nhl-playoffs

I understand that the goal of this format was to emphasize rivalries in divisions and all that good stuff, but when it comes down to it, the Eastern and Western Conference Finals should be a series that features the best 2 teams in the each conference respectively.  That’s it.  Period.  End of story.

This format does not do that.  Not in the least.

Take last year, for example.  5 teams from the Metropolitan Division made the playoffs: Capitals, Penguins, Rangers, Islanders, and Flyers.  The Caps won the division (and president’s trophy), the Penguins came in 2nd, Rangers in 3rd, the Islanders claimed the top wild card spot and the Flyers held onto the 2nd wild card spot.

The Islanders and Rangers were dueling for the 3rd seed in the Metropolitan Division towards the end of the season.  The 3rd seeded team had the treat of playing the hottest team in the NHL, the Penguins, followed by, likely, the President’s Trophy winning Capitals if they were able to defeat the Penguins.  In contrast, the 4th seeded team in the Metropolitan Division had to play a young, inexperienced, Florida Panthers team followed by the winner of a Stamkos-less Lightning and a Red Wings team that limped into the playoffs.

Ha, what a challenge…

Call me crazy, but it seems to me as though being the 4th seed would have provided a easier pathway to the Stanley Cup than being a 2nd or 3rd seed last year.  The Islanders did end up beating the Panthers, but were not able to prevail over the Lightning.  That said, the Islanders were also inexperienced for the most part and did not have a Cup winning roster.  That said, they had a much easier path to winning the Stanley Cup than the Capitals, Penguins, or Rangers did; and those teams finished ABOVE them in the standings!!

In addition, although the Lightning were still in the conversation as a team to emerge from the Eastern Conference last year, the Penguins and Capitals were clearly the 2 powerhouses to emerge from the Eastern Conference.  It really was not close.  Yeah, these teams played each other, but it happened in the 2nd round, not the Eastern Conference Finals, which is how it SHOULD have been…

Transition to this year.

Theoretically, if the playoffs started tomorrow with the current standings and format, the bracket would look a little something like this:

Eastern Conference        

(1) Capitals vs. (WC2) Maple Leafs

(2) Penguins vs. (3) Blue Jackets

(1) Canadiens vs. (WC1) Rangers

(2) Senators vs. (3) Bruins

Western Conference

(1) Wild vs. (WC2) Blues

(2) Blackhawks vs. (3) Predators

(1) Sharks vs. (WC1) Flames

(2) Ducks vs. (3) Oilers

If I were a betting man, I would presume that the Penguins or Capitals will likely emerge victorious from the East again, with a smaller chance of the Blue Jackets or Canadiens prevailing.  In the West, I have a very hard time imagining a team not being the Blackhawks, Wild, or Sharks will prevail.  Although the Sharks were in the Final last year, I would give the Hawks and Wild a slightly better chance to emerge as the Western Conference representative in the Stanley Cup.

In other words, due to the messed up playoff format that Gary Bettman and the NHL created, it is a guarantee that that 2 of the 4 top Cup contenders, in my mind, will not make their Conference Final respectively.

Meanwhile, a team like the Rangers could end up in the Conference Finals instead of Penguins/Capitals.  This is because the Rangers have much easier path to the Conference Final.  I do not think the Rangers will win a Cup this year despite having a solid year so far, but think about it for a second…

The Rangers would first play the Canadiens, who are a solid team with a great goaltender, but they do not jump out on paper offensively or defensively.  They have talent such as Galchenyuk, Weber, Gallagher, Pacioretty, Plekanec, and Markov, but they do not have the talent that teams such as the Penguins and Capitals have in the East.  This is a series that the Rangers could very well win.  If they did, they would play the winner of the Senators and Bruins.  Again, both of these teams are decent, but neither are by any means spectacular.  Anderson has played out of his mind and is bound to cool off, and both the Sens and Bruins are just not consistent enough teams to win a Cup this year barring a major trade at the deadline.  Again, the Rangers could very well beat either of those teams.  If so, welcome to the Conference Finals.

Now look at it from the Penguins’ perspective.  They have to play the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.  The Blue Jackets are a heavy, skilled team that won 16 in a row earlier this year.  Since that 16 game win streak they have not been performing quite as great, but they are still a dangerous team.  As Penguins fan, we know how hard the Blue Jackets play the Penguins.  And often, it isn’t pretty, either.  This is not an easy series win for the Penguins, although they should prevail in 6 or 7.  They then will most likely have to play the Capitals in the 2nd round again, who are a heavier and more skilled team than the Jackets.  Can the Penguins beat the Jackets and the Capitals in a back to back series after winning the Stanley Cup last year?  I think they can, but I wouldn’t bet on them doing it, to be honest.

Wouldn’t you rather be the Rangers?

Yeah, me too.

And yet, once again, a 4th seed in a division will have an easier path to the Stanley Cup than the 1-3 seeds of that same division.

Clearly, the NHL has a problem with its playoff format.  It has become increasingly obvious despite only being in place for 3 years, this year being it’s 4th.  It must be fixed.  It must be addressed. And it must be addressed now.

So, one last time, I beg of you, please…

Fix your playoff format, NHL.

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