A few days off NHL hockey for us, fans, as we await the Stanley Cup finals, provides us with plenty of time to think. You see, many NHL fans are very much like team executives and players in the sense that until the final buzzer has sounded and the Commissioner has been booed to death when presenting the Stanley Cup, hockey is on our mind. For some, it’s a 12 months endeavour. With all of that said, what better time to look at what’s wrong with the current playoffs’ format, right?
With the current format, where the first round of the playoffs is played within the division, the NHL is losing teams who have seeded very well during the regular season every year at the expanse of other teams who have not faired quite as well. So really, aside for allowing the team owners to pocket their dollars and perhaps home ice advantage, what is the incentive for ranking higher in the standings? As Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin always says:
“The goal is always to make the playoffs. Once you’re in, anything can happen.” ~ Marc Bergevin
While some pundits don’t like it as it appears to them as aiming too low (which really isn’t the case), history is proving Bergevin right. It’s often not the best team in the NHL who wins the Stanley Cup, but the hottest team going in, with a bit of luck here and there, and being able to stay relatively healthy. Here’s a look at the teams who have qualified for the playoffs this season, and the matchups:
Now let’s have a closer look at the number of points gathered in regular season, as well as in brackets, their league-wide rankings:
WESTERN CONFERENCE 2018
Nashville 117 (1) vs Colorado 95 (16)
This one makes sense.
Winnipeg 114 (2) vs Minnesota 101 (15)
This one also makes sense. So far so good, right?
Las Vegas 109 (5) vs Los Angeles 98 (12)
This is where it starts getting messed up, but since we’re staying within Conferences, it’s also right as LA had fewer points than both the Ducks and the Sharks.
Anaheim 101 (9) vs San Jose 100 (11)
See above comment for the Vegas vs LA series. The NHL will never revert back to league-wide ranking and get rid of Conferences.
EASTERN CONFERENCE 2018
Tampa Bay 113 (3) vs New Jersey 97 (15)
That’s actually spot on when looking at league rankings.
Boston 112 (4) vs Toronto 105 (7)
That’s the most messed up. Both teams got the short end of the stick here.
Washington 105 (6) vs Columbus 97 (14)
The Caps got a slightly good deal in that one.
Pittsburgh 100 (10) vs Philadelphia 98 (13)
Not only should the Pens have faced the Leafs, but Toronto would have had home ice advantage! Philly got an easier matchup as they should have faced Ovy and the Caps.
But is this just a one-time phenomenon, right? No, it’s not. In the 2017 playoffs, instead of facing off with the 7th seed in the West (Calgary), the 2nd seed Minnesota Wild lost in the first round to the St. Louis Blues, ranked 5th in the Conference. The Montreal Canadiens, who had won their division, had to face the New York Rangers, a team who finished one single point behind them, and lost. The Pittsburgh Penguins finished with 111 points (2nd seed) and had to face Columbus (3rd seed) who finished only 3 points behind them, while 6th seed Boston played 7th seed Ottawa.
In 2016, the Washington Capitals won the East and should have technically played the 8th seed (Detroit). Instead, they played the 7th seed (Philadelphia). Instead, it’s Tampa Bay (6th seed) who played the Red Wings! Meanwhile, the Penguins (2nd) had to play the Rangers (4th) in the first round. In the Western Conference, the NHL was guaranteed to lose their 2nd (St. Louis) or 3rd (Chicago) seed in the first round as those two faced off against each other! How messed up is that?
FIRST ROUND IMPROVEMENT
As mentioned, there is no way that the Board of Governors and the NHLPA would ever vote to revert back to a league-wide standings to determine first round playoffs’ seeding, where the President’s Trophy winners would be facing the team finishing 16th overall regardless of conference. Too much travel, too costly and a definite advantage for teams happening to face a closer geographical rival.
As the very first step to improve the playoffs, considering that the NHL now has 31 (soon to be 32) teams, the league should revert back to the four divisions instead of six. This means that next season, you would have three divisions of 8 teams and one division with seven teams. That seven team division would be formed with keeping in mind the soon to come expansion of Seattle in the North West.
Then for playoffs, if the league went at the very least with Conference standings, keeping with the Wild Cards, three of the four 2018 playoffs’ matchups would have been different this season. The goal would be to avoid top teams being eliminated in the first round, while still giving Division winners an advantage. Here, have a look:
SECOND ROUND IMPROVEMENT
So far so good, right? I’m not quite done yet. In the current format, you could never see a Stanley Cup finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Edmonton Oilers facing their arch rivals Calgary Flames in the finals. Same goes in the states, as how entertaining would it be to see the Chicago Blackhawks fighting their neighbouring state rivals St. Louis Blues in the finals? Or even better, any of you old enough to remember the hype in Major League Baseball for the 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants? Imagine now the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, within a 40 minute commute between them.
What? It wouldn’t draw enough interest nationwide, you say? And having an expansion team facing the Capitals in the finals is drawing interest outside of Las Vegas and Washington, aside for some curiosity for the Golden Knights? Think again.
But how do we achieve this, will you say? By simply adopting a system that already exists at the international level. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here. Just apply the IIHF format, with a crossover between Conferences, where the highest seed coming out of the first round in the East would face the 4th seed in the West, and the 1st seed in the West facing off against the 4th seed in the East. Just like in the IIHF, the 2nd seeds would cross over facing the 3rd seed team in the other Conference as well.
What? The cost of travel? You mean to tell me that sold out building for a guaranteed 4 home games minimum (two rounds), with all the revenue attached and no players’ salary to pay couldn’t more than cover for that travel for the eight remaining teams?!? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Teams would still fill their pockets, you better believe.
Just for the sake of discussions, let’s assume that all top teams win their first round series. I know, I know, there are always upsets but those are pretty hard to predict so bear with me here and play along. The following would have been the 2018 2nd round matchups based on seedings:
The goal and hopefully results would be to give more meaning to the gruelling 82-games schedule by rewarding teams who finished with more points, while greatly improving the quality of the product on the ice by having the best teams, for the most part, make it further into the playoffs. Oh there will be upset, there has always be and it won’t change, but at the very least, you won’t see the best series at the start at the expenses of the later rounds.
In the meantime, have fun watching an expansion team in the finals, playing for what’s supposed to be the toughest trophy in the world to win. As you do that, I will be doing things outdoors, dreaming of a Leafs/Bruins and Canadiens Stanley Cup finals. Go Habs Go!