NHL Playoffs Format Should be Scrapped

Jun 24, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Gary Bettman on stage in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft at the First Niagra Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 24, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Gary Bettman on stage in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft at the First Niagra Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports /
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Jun 15, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Fans look on from a parking garage as Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) carries the cup during the Stanley Cup championship parade and celebration in downtown Pittsburgh. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The league changed the NHL playoffs format, supposedly in the hopes of having more rival teams meet. The result has been an unmitigated disaster

Simply put, the current NHL playoffs format is the worst playoff format in all of sports. The NHL, in its infinite wisdom , has some how found the worst possible  way to determine its Stanley Cup winner.

The purpose of any playoff format in any league,  should be to  provide the best possible set up to best determine a league champion. It is usually set up in a way that rewards a team for having a good regular season. If there is no real benefit to finishing at the top of the standings, then there is no incentive to finish with the best record possible. Teams would then  decide to conserve energy and just play hard enough to get in to the playoffs. As a result, the quality of play in the regular season would decline. That is why teams finishing with the better record are rewarded by getting home ice advantage and by playing the lowest Seed in the playoffs. And in the case of the NFL,  the reward is a first round bye for the top two teams in each conference. It is one of the many reasons why the NFL has the best regular season in all of sports.

In most cases the playoffs are set up to give the best teams in the league the best chance to win the championship. Cinderella stories are great but, at the same time, you don’t want to have the best teams in the league getting knocked out of the playoffs early year after year. It is better for the league when the best teams in the league wind up meeting in the later rounds of the playoffs and in the finals. A Stanley Cup final pitting two teams like Washington and Chicago will generate more interest than this year’s final of Pittsburgh vs San Jose. And the quality of play will be better because the caliber of the two teams will be better.

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Usually when a league makes a change to its playoff format, it is because of a flaw that caused lesser teams to constantly either win a championship or advance further in the playoffs than they probably should have. Two examples. In Baseball, there was a run of wildcard teams winning the World Series year after year and division winners going out early in the playoffs. One painful example of this was in 2011 when the Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Saint Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals went on win the World Series that year. MLB realized that it wasn’t good for the league that so many wildcard teams were winning the World Series instead of division winners and that it wasn’t fair that wildcard teams had as good a chance to win the World Series as a division winner did. So as a result, they changed the playoff format to give teams more incentive to win their division while also making it harder for a wildcard team to win the World Series. They added another wildcard team to the playoffs in each league and then had the wildcard teams play a one game playoff to determine who advanced to the next round while the division winners got a first round bye.

The NHL was having the same problem in the mid 80s. The first round of the playoffs was only a best of five instead of a best of seven series. The result was that a lot of the better teams in the league were getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs because it is easier for a lesser team to win a five game series as opposed to a seven game one. One example of this being in the 1986 playoffs when the New York Rangers, who finished the regular season with a measly 62 points, knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers who had 110.  So the NHL decided to increase the first round from five to seven games because the longer a series is, the harder it is for the underdog to win it. Lower Seeds still knock off higher seeds but it doesn’t happen with as much regularity  as it used to. Only one eight seed, the Kings in 2012, went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Under the old NHL playoff  format, the eight teams qualifying for the playoffs  in each conference were seeded one through eight. In order to give teams an incentive to win their division, the three division winners were awarded the top three seeds. The five remaining teams were then seeded four through eight according to their records. The one seed would play the eight seed the two the seven so on and so forth. After each round was completed, all the teams would be re seeded. Meaning that the highest remaining seed would play the lowest remaining seed, the second highest remaining seed would play the second lowest remaining seed. The higher seed would obviously always have home ice advantage. This format gave the team in each conference with the best record the easiest path to the Stanley Cup finals because they were always assured of playing the lowest remaining seed in each round of the playoffs. This format also allowed for the two best teams in the conference to not meet until the conference finals. It was a fair, common sense format for the playoffs.

Three years ago, the NHL decided to change this format. Instead of just seeding the teams one through eight, they decided that the top three teams in each division would qualify for the playoffs and then the remaining two teams with the best record in the conference, regardless of division, would fill out the last two playoff spots as wildcard teams.  The division winner with the best record would play the wildcard team with the worst record, and the division winner with the second best record would play the wildcard team with the second worst record. The second and third place teams in each division would then square off against each other. The purpose of this, says the NHL, was to create rivalries by having teams in the same division play each other.  Also, after the first round, the teams are not  re seeded. Everyone just stays  in the same bracket. So even if you finish with the best record in the conference, you are not assured of playing the lowest remaining seed in your conference after the first round is over.

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