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Should the NHL change the playoff format?

Rivalries or emphasize the regular season? It’s a delicate balance for the NHL playoffs

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most interesting and controversial subjects in the NHL is the way the playoffs are going. The league reformatted their divisions and conferences in 2013 to reflect a bit how it was in the 1980’s and early ‘90s with division opponents meeting in the first two rounds, with some wildcards mixed in to make sure the most deserving teams made the postseason.

In a sense, the familiarity breeds contempt and rivalry. It’s pretty cool in a sense that if the Penguins make the playoffs, they’re likely to meet a meaningful opponent like the Rangers or Flyers in the first round. Or they could (and have been) playing against a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets to grow a matchup that makes a lot of sense geographically. There’s little chance of a random Eastern meeting of seeing a Florida team or Canadian team early. In a sense, that’s great.

On the other hand, it shoehorns tough matchups early. 2017 was a perfect example. Pittsburgh had the 2nd best record in the entire league, but Washington had the best. And Columbus was 4th in the whole then-30 team league. So the Penguins had to take on CBJ in the first round. They won and then they faced the #1 team in the Capitals in the second round. That’s a ridiculously tough path to take.

This pattern has repeated itself too. This year in 2018 the Nashville Predators had the league’s best record. They faced the #2 team in the entire league in the Winnipeg Jets in the second round, by virtue of being in the same division. It wasn’t much better in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning had the third best record in the entire league, the Boston Bruins finished right behind them one point behind as fourth in the regular season. Those two teams also ended up drawing each other in the Atlantic Division side of things.

As it stands, the current way often pits very strong teams on a second round collision course by nature of the divisional format. No better example than the Pittsburgh-Washington rivalry that has happened three years in a row, all in the second round, and the winner of the series has gone on to win the Stanley Cup in all of the three years.

According to an article from The Athletic back in the winter, the league decision makers are moving closer to make a change (though the current format will remain for the 2018-19 playoffs).

“(I’m) open to exploring change,” responded one GM.

Another GM liked the idea of the top eight in each conference making it, with the top two in each division locking in a playoff spot while giving the remaining spots to the best finishers in each conference regardless of division.

The most emphatic answer came from a Western Conference GM, when he was asked about how much appetite he had to change the current system.

“Lots,” he said in an e-mail to The Athletic. “I’m open to a lot of different structures, including expanding the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs.”

The NHL has been willing to tinker with how the playoffs work often. If they add a 32nd team as expected in Seattle within a few years, nothing necessarily needs to change based on that alone. After all, as of now only 8 of the 16 Eastern teams make the playoffs while 8 of 14 Western teams made the postseason prior to the Vegas Golden Knights entry to the league. Toss Seattle into the West and at least it’s balanced for 8 of the 16 teams in each conference making it.

However, the strength of the second round matchups are no doubt feeding the appetite in changing the system. While in theory it’s great that early rounds of the playoffs are natural heated rivals, it comes at the price of de-emphasizing the regular season.

If you’re Pittsburgh in 2017 and you have a terrific year finishing 2nd in the league, what’s the point when you have to play the 4th best team in the first round and the best team in the second round? Similarly, if you’re in Washington’s shoes in 2017 and you win the regular season’s best record, how fitting is it that you play the 2nd best team in the whole league in the second of four playoff rounds? That also doesn’t make much sense.

This issue only figures to create similar problems in 2019. Pittsburgh and Washington again look like like class of the Metropolitan division and barring an upset will probably see each other again. On the other side of the East, Tampa and Toronto look like they well could be the #1 and #2 teams in the East (if not the league) in the regular season and they also will find each other in the first half of the playoffs. Ditto out west with a 2018 Nashville-Winnpeg rematch looking likely (on paper at least) in the second round again in 2019.

Had the league in 2018 just installed division winners as #1 and #2 seeds and then put the top 8 teams in the conference in the playoffs the first round matchups would have been:

#1 Tampa v. #8 New Jersey (same at it was)

#2 Washington v. #7 Columbus (also the same as the current)

#3 Boston v. #6 Philadelphia (advantageous to Boston, who had a tougher first round matchup)

#4 Pittsburgh v. #5 Toronto

The real difference would be the second round; Tampa easily defeated NJ in reality and would have met the Pens/TOR winner next. By the regular season standings, that would be preferable to meeting the #3 team in the conference like they had to do in reality in 2018. On the other side, the Capitals won against CBJ and would have gotton BOS/PHI winner in the next round.

As it stands, it looks like the #3 and #4 best teams in the conference really get tougher paths early based on the divisional format. And the top seed also gets a rough hand with a high probability of an elite opponent in the second round.

There are other more radical concepts, like pairing #1 v #16, #2 v #15, etc in the first round regardless of conference. That would be fun and probably the “most fair” and representative of the regular season, but due to distance and travel constraints plus the costs that come along with it, doesn’t make much sense for the Pens to play a team like Anaheim or San Jose in the first round of the playoffs. Cool idea, but way unrealistic logistically to actually put into place.

All that aside, the path to a Stanley Cup is never easy, no matter what the playoff format may be. Good teams have to beat other good teams and overcome their share of adveristy on their way to glory, there’s no way around it.

The way the NHL has their playoffs schemed up now means a tough go for their top teams and places little importance on the first 82 games of the season. In a way, that’s part of the beauty of the playoffs - just make it and you have a chance to do something special. But for the league’s best teams, it presents a bigger struggle.


The NHL’s playoff format should be:

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    The way it is now, keep the division matchups and rivalries
    (199 votes)
  • 86%
    Back to the way it was, seeding based on conference standings, not division
    (1299 votes)
1498 votes total Vote Now