This week when the NHL Playoffs begin, the #2 and #3 seeds in the Eastern Conference will meet in the first round when the Columbus Blue Jackets square off with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This makes no sense.
When the NHL realigned their structure for the 2013-2014 season, hockey moved to a divisional-based playoff format with their four new divisions: Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, and Pacific split into a traditional Eastern and Western Conference. The top three teams in each division would automatically qualify for the postseason while there would also be two Wild Cards for the next two highest finishers. The highest seeded division champion would play the lowest seeded wild card team while the lower division champion would play the higher wild card team. That meant that the #2 and #3 finishers in each division would automatically play each other regardless of how many points they accumulated during the regular season.
At the time, the idea was spawned to focus on creating new and more intense divisional rivalries. After all, what better place than the cauldron of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to create rivalries that would indeed help the sport across the board? In theory it seems like a great idea, but as we will see this year in practice it’s something that needs changed.
Here’s how the Eastern Conference playoff bracket looks this year with the Capitals winning the Metro division and the #1 seed and the Canadiens winning the Atlantic Division.
#1 Washington Capitals (118 points) vs #8 Toronto Maple Leafs (95 points)
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins (111 points) vs #3 Columbus Blue Jackets (108 points)
#4 Montreal Canadiens (103 points) vs #5 New York Rangers (102 points)
#6 Ottawa Senators (98 points) vs #7 Boston Bruins (95 points)
You have a first round of 1 v 8, 2 v 3, 4 v 5, and 6 v 7.
Once again… this makes no sense.
The Metro division dominated the NHL this year with the Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets finishing with three of the four highest point totals in the league. And yet, because of the divisional format, only one of them will make the conference finals. Another will bow out in the semifinals. And one very unlucky team will not even escape the first round. On the other side of the draw, either the 6th or 7th best team in the Eastern Conference is guaranteed a spot in the conference semifinals.
The Penguins-Blue Jackets scenario is particularly brutal. Either team would have been much better off finishing fourth in their division like the New York Rangers. Even though the Rangers finished 6 points behind Columbus, they get to come through the Atlantic Division playoffs as the higher ranked Wild Card team. Not only do they get to play a Montreal side that only had one more point than them in the regular season, they would be rewarded by playing either Ottawa or Boston in the semis if they make it there. It would have been much better for Columbus or Pittsburgh to tank the end of the regular season and get the #4 seed in their division, and who knows, the CBJ might have been trying to do that by losing 6 of their last 7 games.
Clearly the NHL needs to fix this because it’s not a good look for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to have one of the Top 4 teams facing a guaranteed exit in Round 1 while two teams who finished with the 12th and 13th best record will play for a guaranteed spot in Round 2.
Pierre LeBrun at ESPN.com best describes the Stanley Cup Playoff dilemma by saying that the league needs to decide whether it wants a true divisional-based playoff format or one that seeds teams 1-8 by conference. In reality, the current NHL playoff format is really neither. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of the two that has opened the league up to its current quagmire. Greg Wyshynski foreshadowed the current predicament back in 2013 as well:
Instead, we have a somewhat convoluted wild card format that exists somewhere between the violent bliss of divisional play and the parity of the conference system. It could rule. Or it could have us yearning for the halcyon days of Atlantic Division powerhouse vs. random Southeast Division team in Round 1.
The league needs to make a decision that breaks one way or the other or else we will continue to see weird situations like this year’s that punish great seasons and reward more mediocre ones. Fans would be more understanding of a pure divisional format where the top four teams in each division get in. While there would be situations like this year that arise when the balance of power might entirely rest within one division, at least then the NHL would remove the scenario where it’s better to finish 4th in your division than 2nd or 3rd. (Congratulations, Rangers fans on winning the lottery this season.) Then you would really focus in on building those divisional rivalries instead of the half-and-half scenario we have now.
The more fair playoff system is to go back to the conference based format that would see the Penguins and Blue Jackets face off with the Bruins and Senators this year and reward teams purely based on the points they earned during the season.
Either format would be an improvement over what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are offering right now.