Fixing the OHL’s First Round

After a pair of tight Game 7 victories, the fourth-seeded Kingston Frontenacs and London Knights have advanced to the second round of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) playoffs. And because the other six higher-seeded teams all advanced, this marks the first time in the 19-year history of the 20-team OHL that the higher-seeded team won all eight first-round series.

As the two Game 7’s showed, there could easily have been a pair of upsets. Yet this outcome, though unusual, matches a longer-term trend of dwindling upsets in the first round of the OHL playoffs.

Where Have All the Upsets Gone?

From 2012 to 2016, there was exactly one upset each year among the eight first-round match-ups. Over the five-year period, that’s an upset rate of 12.5%. The previous five years, from 2007 to 2011, saw nine upsets (a rate of 22.5%); the five-year stretch before that (2002-2006), 14 (35%). First-round upsets, then, have declined rapidly over the last 15 years in the OHL.

The relative paucity of upsets in today’s OHL stands in stark contrast to the NHL’s first round, where there have been 19 upsets in the past five years — a ridiculous 48.5% rate. To be clear, the NHL has its own problems. But if the NHL’s regular season has become effectively meaningless, so too has the OHL’s first round, in which nearly every favourite now advances.

Marc Staal, New York Rangers, Fantasy Hockey
Before becoming a fixture on the Rangers’ blueline, Marc Staal led an underdog Wolves team to the OHL Finals. (Bridget Samuels/Flickr)

It’s not just the first round, either. Consider the second round of the OHL playoffs. In 2007, the sixth-seeded Sudbury Wolves, led by captain Marc Staal, pulled off a string of upsets, defeating the top three teams in the Eastern Conference to reach the OHL Finals. While the Wolves finished two games short of a championship, it was a thrilling run for Sudbury fans. Since then, teams seeded #5-8 have lost 12 straight second-round series, staggering to a cumulative record of six wins and 48 losses. Only the 2011-12 Saginaw Spirit managed to scrape together even two wins in a series.

All but one of those 12 series losses was to a #1-seeded team. Eleven times in the past 10 years, then, #1 seeds have effectively gotten a free pass through the first two rounds of the OHL playoffs. Some might argue that this is a good thing—that the team with the best record in its conference should be rewarded with an easy path to the conference finals. But with so few upsets in the first round of the playoffs and a quarter of second-round series being almost automatic, more than half of the playoff match-ups in the OHL are now devoid of any meaningful championship implications.

Mark Hunter, Innovator

Like so many phenomena in today’s OHL, this trend of declining first-round upsets can be tied to one inimitable team: the 2004-05 London Knights. Lost in the furor of that record-shattering season were the accomplishments of the previous year’s Knights. With 110 regular season points, the 2003-04 team broke the 1984-85 Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ record for most points in the regular season but came up short in the Western Conference Finals against the eventual champion Guelph Storm and top goaltender Adam Dennis. That year, Knights GM Mark Hunter made just one trade after Thanksgiving, adding veteran defenceman Frank Rediker from the Windsor Spitfires at the trade deadline.

Mark Hunter’s flurry of deadline moves made the world-beating 2004-05 Knights the OHL’s first modern superteam. (Wikipedia)

Flash forward one later. This time, Hunter made a flurry of deadline moves, adding forward Danny Fritsche, defenceman Daniel Girardi, and Dennis himself to a team that was then 32-2-2. In doing so, Hunter created arguably the first modern “superteam”: a team already at or near the top of the league that nevertheless added significant talent mid-season. Having witnessed the phenomenon first-hand, Hunter recognized that even a strong front-runner could experience crushing playoff defeat to a weaker team buoyed by a hot goalie, key injuries to their opponent, or simple luck.

Examining the 2004-05 playoff bracket in more detail reveals just how different the OHL was before Hunter’s superteam strategy took hold. There were four upsets in the first round that year (as many as the last five OHL seasons combined!), including three in the Eastern Conference, capped off by #8 Toronto over #1 Mississauga. A closer look at the Eastern Conference standings shows why: the top six teams all finished with 76-81 points. Eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa, the #6 seed, had a plus-34 goal differential; #1 Mississauga was at plus-35. Absent any standout teams, let alone a superteam, the 2004-05 Eastern Conference playoffs were a free-for-all.

The OHL’s Disappearing Middle Class

Anthony DeAngelo
Anthony DeAngelo, acquired from the Sarnia Sting, helped solidify the 2014-15 Greyhounds as a powerhouse. (Terry Wilson /OHL Images)

Since that fateful year, the 2007-08 Kitchener Rangers, 2008-09 Spitfires, 2009-10 Barrie Colts, and 2014-15 Greyhounds have all matched or exceeded the 2003-04 Knights’ then-record 110 points. All four teams added major pieces mid-season. And this is far from an exhaustive list. (Two of those four teams would go on to lose in the playoffs to superteams of their own right.)

Barring a defection from U.S. college or a demotion from the AHL, any addition to an OHL team is a subtraction from another OHL team. Even more important, the effect is cumulative: when the strongest teams load up, the next batch of teams—strong teams that aren’t favourites but might have been able to put together a run in the pre-superteam OHL—are given greater incentive to unload. This trend reached a new level this year when the Oshawa Generals packed off their two best players, Anthony Cirelli and Mitchell Vande Sompel, to Erie and London, respectively, at the deadline despite sitting first in the Eastern Conference.

The result is a handful of superteams and a much larger group of non-contenders. It is no surprise, then, that by the time the first round of the playoffs rolls around, half of the teams meekly bow out.

Fixing the OHL’s First Round Problem

The cyclical model of contention, with its massive outlays of draft picks years in the future, has its detractors, but barring severe and arbitrary restrictions on player movement or draft pick trading, superteams aren’t going anywhere. So why not try a completely different (if no less radical) approach to fixing the opening round of the OHL playoffs and eliminate the round of 16 entirely? The top eight teams in the league at the end of the regular season would simply progress immediately to the league quarterfinals. Division winners would be guaranteed a spot, even if they fell outside the top eight teams.

Many fans and pundits, noting that the Western Conference has won 13 of the past 15 OHL championships, have clamoured for the OHL to switch to a single, 16-team playoff bracket that ignores conferences. This would prevent the top two teams in the league from meeting before the finals and teams like this year’s Spitfires, who finished fifth in points, from drawing an even stronger team (i.e. the 99-point Knights) in the round of 16.

Critics have responded that such a system would lead to too much travel. However, if the round of 16 were eliminated, the league could adopt this format with a significantly reduced number of inter-conference match-ups. Consider the quarterfinal bracket this year’s standings would have produced under an eight-team, conference-agnostic format:

#1 Erie vs. #8 Mississauga

#2 Owen Sound vs. #7 Oshawa

#3 Sault Ste. Marie vs. #6 Peterborough

#4 London vs. #5 Windsor

Sault Ste. Marie to Peterborough is unquestionably a long haul — but so is Sault Ste. Marie to Owen Sound, one of four quarterfinal match-ups under the current format. Travel for the other two East-West showdowns is easily manageable.

Jonathan Ang and the Petes draw a much tougher quarterfinal opponent under this format: the 100-point Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

This format also produces a much more interesting slate of games. The epic rivalry clash between London and Windsor is retained, but this time, the stakes are higher — a trip to the league semifinals. In the other three match-ups, the top three seeds in the two conferences face off, with the Eastern Conference contenders given the opportunity to show that they belong in the same breath as the western powerhouses.

If the seeding holds, the most compelling second-round series of the current format, Erie vs. London and Sault Ste. Marie vs. Owen Sound, get the semifinal billing they deserve, and the stage is set for a wild final between two of four 99-plus-point teams.

At the other end of the standings, we avoid the awkward spectacle of teams well below the .500 mark backing into the postseason. Instead, we get a potential scramble among good teams to get an invitation to a much more exclusive tournament. Middling teams no longer have the luxury of shipping out their stars and still making the postseason, giving them an incentive to hold on to those players. And if more teams elect to keep their players, it becomes more challenging for great teams to become superteams, potentially creating more playoff parity.

Other Benefits of a Shorter Postseason

Eliminating the round of 16 would also open up a number of interesting scheduling options for the league.

Nicolas Hague was the 2015-16 winner of the OHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year award, part of the league’s effort to emphasize the importance of education. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

The OHL is fond of referring to its players as student-athletes; by freeing up two weekends at the end of the current regular season, the league could move four or five mid-week dates from its schedule to those weekends, reducing the impact of the players’ hockey commitment on their class attendance. The league could then point to the move as evidence of the value it places on education.

Alternatively (or additionally), the league could reduce the number of times teams play three games in three days, helping to combat fatigue and reduce the risk of injury.

If the league is concerned about lost revenue due to the absence of first-round playoff gate receipts, it could add four regular season games to the schedule. (It is worth noting that first-round playoff attendance numbers often fall below average regular-season attendance.) These could be additional divisional rivalry games to help drive attendance and revenue and compensate for the reduced likelihood of rivals meeting in the postseason.

Michael DiPietro and Gabriel Vilardi would be welcoming a few more teams to Windsor if the proposed changes were implemented. (Dave Jewell)

But there’s an even more intriguing possibility. If the QMJHL and WHL could be convinced to sign on, the league could look at expanding the Memorial Cup to an eight-team tournament. This would effectively replace a slate of mostly inconsequential playoff games with high-stakes match-ups between the best junior teams in the country — without expanding the length of the players’ annual commitment.

While it’s difficult to imagine a revenue-neutral replacement of around 120 first-round playoff games with, say, 10 extra Memorial Cup contests, the inclusion of more teams in the Cup would mobilize a larger number of fanbases, showcase more of the league’s stars, and drive the longer-term growth of the league. Combined with a more balanced and exciting slate of remaining playoff games, it’s not hard to see the advantages of this approach outweighing its drawbacks.

Eliminating the OHL playoffs’ round of 16 may be a radical proposal, but after ten years without a meaningful first-round upset, it’s time for the league to do something radical. With the potential payoff of greater league parity, better quarterfinal and semifinal match-ups, a more meaningful league final, and additional flexibility for the league to pursue key goals such as better player welfare and a more exciting Memorial Cup, I think the reward outweighs the risk.