March is probably one of the most agonizing months of the year for hockey fans. It’s a time when teams make or break their season, it’s a time when dark horses emerge from the shadows, and it’s a time when everyone in the league is keeping an eye on the standings to see who they may have a date with in the first round of the playoffs.
The inner-workings of seeding in the NHL have been greatly altered of the past few seasons. When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, the NHL had an obligation to move them to the Western Conference because of their geographic location. That set off a chain reaction which involved realigning the league into four divisions and a new playoff format which included two wild card teams, but that might not be what is best for the league.
The Current Situation
After the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, the NHL made some drastic changes to the way the conferences were structured.
Prior to 2013, the league was structured so that the Eastern and Western conferences were both split up into three respective divisions. Both conferences consisted of 15 teams each. The top eight from each conference made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the top three seeds were awarded to the division winners, regardless of if seeds 4 through 8 had more accumulated more points.
When Winnipeg moved to the Western conference, the NHL also decided to move Columbus and Detroit into the Eastern Conference, this created an imbalance with 14 teams in the West and 16 teams in the East. Each conference was split into two divisions and the top three seeds in each division were awarded a playoff spot, and two more teams from each conference were awarded a wild-card spot.
It was the NHL’s wish to create an environment where teams had to play through their division, which is fine, until you actually break down what the league did.
First of all, it is now harder to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference than in the Western Conference. West teams have a 57% chance of making the playoffs and East teams have a 50% chance of making the playoffs. That’s just the nature of the beast since the NHL created the imbalance between the two conferences.
However, that’s not the big issue.
The bigger issue is that the NHL is effectively nixing division rivalries in later rounds, they just will not happen as often. In fact, since the NHL has changed playoff formats, not one of the Conference Finals series has featured two teams from the same division.
The teams will still meet, but it likely won’t be with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line. That’s very disappointing.
Another downfall to this is that two very good teams are going to be eliminated in the first round, because now the 2nd and 3rd seeds in the division will faceoff against each other in the first round. This is especially evident this year when you look at the Western Conference match ups right now. As of March 7th, the playoff match ups in the West would look like this:
- Anaheim (P1) vs. Nashville (WC1)
- Los Angeles (P2) vs. San Jose (P3)
- Chicago (C1) vs. Minnesota (WC2)
- Dallas (C2) vs. St. Louis (C3)
And just for reference the East would look like this:
- Tampa (A1) vs. Pittsburgh (WC1)
- Florida (A2) vs. Boston (A3)
- Washington (M1) vs. Detroit (WC2)
- New York Rangers (M2) vs. New York Islanders (M3)
So the big question here is what can the NHL do to change this? And what would it look like if they did change it?
The ‘New’ Playoff Format
First things first, and as much as I hate to say this, but Detroit needs to be moved back to the Western Conference. There is so many great rivalries that have been built over the years by the Red Wings, and they were a staple of the West. It would even out the divisions again. Yes, it’s a lot of travel, but teams like Nashville and St. Louis have to do it, it’s the NHL, there’s no reason why Detroit can’t as well.
That would put 15 teams in each conference, so what’s next?
Get rid of the divisions.
Divisions are really nothing more than a scheduling aid, and even now, they’re becoming obsolete. The scheduling is also an easy fix. Team
A will play 11 other conference teams 5 times a year, Team A will play the remaining 3 conference teams 4 times a year, and Team A plays everyone out of conference just once. That isn’t much different from the set up now, except there are less inter-conference games, which isn’t a bad thing.
Now that that’s out-of-the-way, if this format were in effect, how would the playoff picture look now?
The West would be playoff picture would be:
- Chicago (1) vs. Detroit (8)
- Dallas (2) vs. San Jose (7)
- St. Louis (3) vs. Nashville (6)
- Anaheim (4) vs. Los Angeles (5)
The East picture would look like:
- Washington (1) vs. Philadelphia (8)
- Tampa Bay (2) vs. Pittsburgh (7)
- New York Rangers (3) vs. Boston (6)
- Florida (4) vs. New York Islanders (5)
If you compare the matchups listed in the new format compared to the ones in the current format, you can see why the format needs to be changed.
The most noticeable change is the Philadelphia would be occupying a playoff spot now, since the divisions would have an even number of teams. Aside from that, each team is now represented by a true seed.
With the old format, the Stars were actually playing the three seed in the conference, that should never happen in the first round. The Stars and Blues are separated by just four points in the standings, that could easily be a conference final match up. The Stars and Sharks are separated by 11 points. The current format almost punishes the Stars and gives them a much tougher first round match up.
The Pacific division is inferior to the Central, and in the new format, that actually hurts the Central division teams.
Lastly, as I mentioned above, this ‘new’ format would allow for many more possibilities in the conference final. The Rangers and Islanders or the Stars and Blues could easily meet in the conference finals. Instead, the current format kills any possibility of that happening in the first round.
The NHL and Gary Bettman need to take a good look at the format they are using now, because it creates non-favorable match ups in the playoffs for very good teams.
Matt is a contributor for the Philadelphia Flyers at The Hockey Writers. He has previously covered the Flyers for GrandstandU. He enjoys playing hockey and making music in his spare time.