The NHL playoffs are a glorious time of the year, a time to see what the 16 teams who made it are made of. The 82 game battle of the regular season is done and these 16 teams are battle tested and ready to see who will win the Stanley Cup. With four rounds consisting of seven game series awaiting two teams, preparation is important, along with a little luck and, of course, some major talent.
The journey to get to the Cup is filled with obstacles and sometimes (more often than not) disappointment. So exactly what steps do teams have to go through in order to represent their conference for the league title? To start with, your team has to be one of the 8 best in your conference. The conferences split the NHL nearly in half as there are 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference. Once your team has shown that it has what it takes to be in the top 8, you have to be ready for four rounds of best of seven hockey, if you expect to win. That is a ton of games of high intensity hockey. The games are tight checking and the hockey is really fast. For some teams, it is difficult to keep up and their lack of speed or size may get them bumped earlier than the fans, and GM, want.
Before the realignment this past summer, the playoff format was very simple and easy to follow. 8 teams make it on both sides and if you win your division, you are ranked in the top three no matter what. Then the best team plays against the worst team, second against seventh and so forth. After round one, nothing changes, the best team to advance plays the worst team that advances, within your own conference. Finally after the third round of inter-conference play, you are left with one Eastern Champ and one Western Champ and they battle it out in a seven game series for the cup. Simplicity at its finest, where finishing high in the season tables sets you up nicely for the playoffs and playing the weakest team you can is an advantage, right?
So what did they go and do this year? Well, there are only two divisions in each conference and finishing 1st, 2nd or 3rd in your division guarantees you a playoff spot. That is six spots taken; so the two last spots go to the next two best teams regardless of division who have the highest point total at the end of the season. Fine, not too complicated yet...
We will look from the point of view of only one conference to simplify things. So, once the rankings are set, two separate brackets are created in the same conference. The first placed teams of each division play against the wildcard teams in round one, with the team with the higher point total facing the wildcard team with the lowest point total. Now the second and third ranked teams in the divisions face each other in round one, thus creating the two brackets, first place team vs. wildcard 2 and second place team vs. third place team. In round two, the winner of those two series face off against each other, same as in the other bracket of that Conference, leaving you with one winner from each bracket and your two teams that will play each other for the Conference crown. Simple enough? Didn’t think so. Here is why this format is just plain awful. Or, as Shaq would say, "hora-awful."
4 Confusion City
Pretty self explanatory when you think about it and it was pretty well documented in the intro. If you are reading this and shaking your head because you do not understand who is going to play against who and what happens after round one, you are NOT alone. The idea of putting in two teams who can jump divisions based solely on points is nonsensical. It can cause major confusion to anyone sitting and trying to figure it out.
The whole idea of the format is to have the four teams who are standing after the first round to be two teams from one division and two from the other. Ideally, that would be nice, however, the fact that the wildcards can both potentially be from the same division throws that whole theory out of whack. It throws the whole format into chaos. Why do the Bruins have to beat the Blue Jackets to win the Atlantic Division? It's a funny discrepancy that doesn't seem to make the format ideal for what it is in fact trying to do, which is to get the two division champs to play each other for the conference title.
3 Loss of Fans
This game will never lose a single fan in Canada, everyone knows that. Sure you might hate your team for a week, but then they'll win five in a row and you are right back there watching the games and counting the days until the playoffs. South of the border, however, that does not happen. The USA is where the game of hockey needs to grow the most to be successful. That country should easily get behind a game that is fast paced, action packed and allows fighting! Don’t Americans love fighting? American sports fans, however, are very much attracted to numbers and big games. Big events that you can bet on? Open up the sock drawer and bet that change on the Canadian with no teeth.
The playoffs SHOULD be one of those big events. Perhaps it is too long, and no one game means as much as the Super Bowl because it is a seven game series. Though game seven of the final would have to count for something. With all these games and the two month long playoff format in the NHL, shouldn’t the NHL at least make it easy to understand? American fans already were not really tuning in with the old system that was easy to follow. Now, they have to see who won the division, who the last wild card team is and figure out what division are they playing against? Too many questions, that people who do not totally care about the game won’t bother to look for the answers to. Instead, sports fans are picking up a Bud and saying "that sounds complicated, when is the Super Bowl again?"
2 No More Rivalries?
That may be a slight exaggeration because ideally the rivalries most teams have are with teams in their own division. There are exceptions of course, take Detroit and Colorado back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. In the same era, Edmonton and Dallas were bitter rivals because they played each other in the playoffs continuously and built up a hatred that could boil over when they played again. Now, what is happening is that the same teams will ALWAYS play each other in the playoffs year after year because they have to play games against teams in their own divisions. Should heat up the rivalry, right? Ideally yes, and for the beginning most likely, but after awhile, playing the same teams over and over, not to mention the fact that you play that team also 5-6 times in the regular season, might bet boring. Enough is enough at some point, right? Surely there will be sparks flying in every playoff series, but as recently as last year, the Kings and Blues had struck up an intense rivalry and distaste for each other having met in two consecutive playoffs.
With the new format, those two teams may never meet unless they both go to the Conference Final. Sure it was the luck of the draw with the other format because there was never any way to tell who would finish where in the top 8, but this format just plain rules out the idea that teams from different divisions will play each other and that is just wrong.
1 Regular Season Standings are Almost Meaningless
The regular season standings are not exactly meaningless, but the fact remains that finishing second in your division really means nothing other than the fact that you are guaranteed a playoff spot. A guaranteed playoff spot is nice and all, but why bust your hump to have a 100 point season if that will not give you any advantage if one team finishes ahead of you? A second place team in the Pacific Division can potentially face a more difficult match up in the first round because the Central Division teams are weaker. How is that fair? Playing well all year should entitle your team to play against the weakest team possible. That is one thing that really made sense about the old format. The higher up you finish in the standings, the weaker opponent you face and the more you guarantee yourself home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. At least the home ice advantage part has stayed true, so finishing higher up is not a total loss.