It's Time for the NHL to Rethink Its Playoff Format
The NHL's convoluted playoff wild card set up manages to both emphasize and de-emphasize divisional matchups.
One of the best parts about the NHL being so poorly run and screwing up so many things—lockouts, expansion team name reveals, lockouts, marketing, a remodeled website far less functional than its previous incarnation, a bad TV deal with NBC, lockouts—is that there's fairly obvious boner we overlook every day.
Yeah, I said boner.
The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2013-14 season, creating an imbalance between the East (16 teams) and the West (14 teams) and changing a playoff format everyone seemed to have enjoyed. Instead of going with the traditional 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5 matchups that included re-seeding, the league installed a clunky, confusing format that simultaneously emphasizes divisional matchups and throws them out the window depending on the standings.
The new wild-card setup allowed for a team in one division to cross over to another division and play its first two rounds there, which defeats the league's stated purpose of going from six to four divisions in the first place. And based on the standings, the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Playoffs have a really good chance to be as ridiculous as ever.
As of right now, the Metropolitan Division is on pace to send five teams to the postseason. The Philadelphia Flyers are on a 103-point pace, which would give them the fifth-best record in the Metro but the sixth-best record in the conference. No matter the five teams that potentially come out of the Metro, one must cross over to the Atlantic Division and face the Montreal Canadiens in a matchup that shouldn't happen on any level.
Count the ways this doesn't make sense.
The Habs are on pace to win the East with about 120 points. Instead of being rewarded with the conference's weakest team (likely whichever team finishes third in the Atlantic), they'll likely draw a much more powerful team from the stacked Metro. This is a situation only the NHL can create, one that screws the Habs and the Flyers by forcing them to play a much tougher first-round opponent than what would be offered in the pre-2013 format.
It also kicks the teeth out of the NHL's mandate to emphasize rivalries. Instead of drawing, say, the Bruins, the Habs will get a non-divisional team. Instead of drawing the Penguins or the Capitals, the Flyers face the same issue.
This problem could also exist in the West, where against all odds and in the face of logic, the Pacific Division currently occupies five of the eight playoff spots. The problems of balance and rivalries that exist in the East are also there in the West, but there's a unique issue in the West that doesn't plague the East: travel.
One of the benefits of grouping teams was to cut down somewhat on travel, which is a much bigger problem in the West. If Philadelphia has to travel to Montreal instead of Washington, yeah, it's not ideal but it's not crippling, either.
Last year, the Anaheim Ducks were rewarded for winning the Pacific with a first-round series against the Nashville Predators, the top wild-card squad from the Central Division. Instead of a short flight to face a divisional foe, they took a 2,000-mile flight to Tennessee. The old format wouldn't have minimized travel because the 2-vs.-7 matchup still would have resulted in a Ducks–Predators series, but why do this divisional thing at all if it can be thrown out the window at the point of the year when rivalries are most intense?
If the season ended today, top-seeded Chicago would open against the Los Angeles Kings. There's a long way to go and the Central could very easily finish with five playoff teams, but the fact that this could happen if the NHL doesn't adjust is simply goofy.
Maybe, just maybe, the NHL can get away from this. Probably not next season, but soon.
Here is Gary Bettman on why the NHL went to a wild-card system in 2013: "We introduced the wild card to try to balance that off a little bit better. So we think in that regard it begins to address what might be a concern, although as I indicated, I'm not sure it's that realistic of a concern."
The concern that a team finishing sixth in one division and missing the playoffs despite having more points than the third-place team in the other division is very realistic. It hasn't happened yet, but the West is such a mess this year that it still could.
The NHL gets excited at the thought of parity, which is what the new format offers over the old one that involved reseeding, but Vegas joining the West next season allows the league to, at the very least, ditch the wild cards. They still needs to either add a team in Seattle, or add one in Quebec while relocating an Eastern team to Seattle to restore complete balance, but going to 16/15 allows the NHL to return to the format everyone loved.
Nearly every issue with the NHL is minor, much like this one you've spent a few minutes reading about, but there are just so many of them. And they all seem to ignore what fans want. Want an official NHL site with salaries? Too bad. Want to bet on the games legally in your state? The NHL will get in the way of that. Want John Scott in your All-Star Game? They'll do all they can to prevent that from happening.
Getting away from this divisional-but-not-divisional-wild-card-crossover mess is within the NHL's power. Maybe not next season or the season after that, but in the interest of fairness and simplification, it should be on the league's radar now.
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