Out With The New, In With The Old: Why The NHL Needs To Go Back To Their Old Playoff Format
It’s been three and a half seasons since the NHL adopted a new playoff format and redesigned their divisions. The league wanted to go back to a format similar to what they had from the 1982 to 1993 playoffs-- four teams from each of the four divisions made the postseason and those teams competed against each other until the conference finals.
The NHLPA didn’t want to go back to this format exactly, so the NHL went with a hybrid version where two wildcard teams make it regardless of what division they're in. The idea behind the change was to create more intense interdivisional rivalries, as well as allow for “March-Madness-style” bracket contests.
It’s ‘wonderful’ the league is trying force great potential rivalry matchups like Habs vs. Panthers, and Devils vs. Hurricanes, but it’s not warranted. From the 1994 to 2013 playoffs, we still had Toronto vs. Ottawa, Detroit vs. Colorado, and Boston vs. Montreal. Even when the Maple Leafs were playing the Flyers, Islanders or Capitals in the postseason, no fan was saying “it’s too bad we’re not playing a team from the division.”
Current System "Pros"
The most recent playoff format is basically what the NBA uses now-- the top eight teams from each conference make the playoffs, and the highest seed plays the lowest seed. One major difference is that the NHL format re-seeded after each round. One disadvantage of this system is that there is a decreased chance of building familiar rivalries, which is true-- the current format does make it more likely that the Flames and Oilers will meet in the playoffs, but it also makes it nearly impossible that they’d ever meet in the conference finals. Plus with the wildcard spots, four of the eight teams in a conference could be playing a team from the other division-- which is what happened last year in the East. So the main “pro” to the new format of creating divisional rivalries, doesn’t always come into play.
Current System "cons"
There are also a number of cons to the new format that give an unfair advantage to teams in weaker divisions, and one problem has occured over the previous two seasons-- a team can be penalized for finishing 3rd in a stacked division. Last year, the Blue Jackets had third most points in the East, but they were also 3rd in their division. Instead of a first round matchup where they’d host the Senators (via the old format), they had to go on the road and start their postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Rangers who had less points in the same division as Columbus, played the Habs, and the Senators had home-ice against the Boston Bruins (a team that made the playoffs by a single point). The same thing happened the year before in the Central division-- the Blackhawks finished T-3rd for most points in the West, but because they were also 3rd in their division, they started the playoffs on the road in St. Louis. Many argue that “if you’re going to win the cup, you’ll still need to beat the best teams no matter what round it’s in,” which is a fair point BUT I think every fan would take a second or third round exit over a first.
Speaking of the second round, the current format can still dramatically favour one team over another in the conference semifinals. Last season the Washington Capitals had 118 points-- 8 more than any other team, 16 more than the Rangers, and 20 points above the Senators. However, because the new format doesn’t re-seed teams and uses the “March-Madness-style” bracket, the Sens hosted the Rangers and the Caps hosted the Penguins.
Luckily for the NHL, the top 8 teams in each conference have reached the playoffs under the new format every year since it’s been introduced-- however, it could potentially change this season. In order for this to happen, the 6th place team in one division would have to have more points than the 3rd place team in the other division (not likely, but still possible). In the Atlantic division, the Maple Leafs could realistically have less points than the Rangers, Islanders and Hurricanes (all teams outside the playoffs), and still be in a playoff position.
Some feel going back to the older format from 1982 to 1993 where four teams from each division get in is the way to go, but this might make even less sense than the current system. Under that format, the Red Wings would be in the playoffs in the East over four teams that have more points than they do.
The answer to this problem is simple and it can be changed this offseason: go back to the most recent system from the 1994 to 2013 playoffs, where the top eight teams from each conference make the playoffs, and the highest seed plays the lowest seed(re-seeding after each round). It’s the best way to decide who gets in, and where they deserve to be ranked.
The NHL playoffs are amazing for so many reasons, but a manipulative format that tries to pin divisional teams against one another is not one of them. At the end of the day, the best two teams in each conference deserve to battle it out in the semi’s for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.