By: Joshua Chodor
When the National Hockey League modified its playoff structure before the 2013-14 season, the intent was to emphasize divisional rivalries. The format gives automatic playoff bids to the top three teams in each division, and also allows for two wild card teams to qualify for the postseason. The wild card teams can both come from the same division (meaning five of the eight playoff seeds are from one division, and three from the other), or one team from each division qualify. On paper, the plan plays out well: the division winners are rewarded by having home-ice advantage and by playing a wild card team in the first round. Second place in each division receives home-ice advantage but has to play the third place team in the same division. While this can lead to rivalry matchups, such as the seven game thriller between the Blues and Blackhawks last season, it also can lead to big problems. This season appears headed on a path to playoff disaster.
Prior to the 2014 playoffs, the NHL seeded teams based on both divisional rank and total points. The three divisional winners in each conference would receive the top three seeds. The other five best teams in the conference, regardless of division, would make the playoffs seeded four through eight. The top four teams would get home-ice advantage, and teams would be re-seeded after the first round (meaning if one beat eight, and seven beat two, one would play seven – unlike the NBA). While the old plan worked in many aspects, it was changed due to having divisional winners get higher seeds than teams with better records. For example, in 2012, the Florida Panthers won the Southeast Division with 94 points, claiming the third seed. The Pittsburgh Penguins finished second in their division and third overall in the NHL with 108 points. However, by virtue of winning the division, Florida took the third seed and played a weaker opponent than the fourth-seeded Penguins.
Moving ahead to 2017, the Eastern Conference must be prepared to face a similar issue. As of February 21, four of the top five teams in the NHL reside within the Metropolitan Division (the NHL reduced itself from six divisions to four when changing the playoff structure). The New York Rangers, sitting at fifth overall in the entire league, are in fourth place in their own division. If the season ended today, the Rangers would make the playoffs as a wild card, and would have to go on the road to face the Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens – a team with seven fewer points than the Rangers. While emphasizing division championships, the current playoff structure punishes New York by forcing them to start the postseason on the road.
The seeding woes continue outside of the wild card. The Columbus Blue Jackets are fourth overall in the league, but sit at third in the Metropolitan. Some would consider them to be a Stanley Cup contender. Yet, if the season ended today, they would be forced to begin the playoffs on the road. Their opponent would be the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are third overall in the NHL. That two of the best three teams in the entire league are playing each other in the first round of the playoffs proves that there is a massive flaw in the current system.
Lastly, this issue will impact the rest of the Eastern Conference. In the Atlantic Division, the second place team is the Ottawa Senators. Under the current format, Ottawa would receive home-ice advantage over the Atlantic’s third place team, the Florida Panthers. However, Ottawa has the sixth best record in the east, and Florida has the seventh. This means that while the third and fourth best records play tougher opponents on the road, seeds six and seven play each other. This rift will potentially cause two of the league’s best teams to exit in the first round, while two less talented teams are given an advantage to move forward. While the structure has worked since its implementation in 2014, this glaring issue should prove that more change is needed in the NHL playoff format.