The Toronto Maple Leafs are enjoying life these days. After their latest win, a 6-2 triumph over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche, they find themselves in third place in the overall NHL standings.
Literally everything is going right for the the Maple Leafs despite missing some key players on the blue line. They have one of the top offenses in the NHL. They’ve allowed the fourth fewest goals in the league. At least so far, their goaltending gamble is paying off with the combination of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov shutting the door. They are on cruise control as they get ready for their biggest test yet in the playoffs.
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But today, that’s where the story begins. The playoffs.
Maple Leafs in Familiar Territory
This story sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. It worked out like this last season as well. The Maple Leafs enjoyed a strong regular season only to be knocked out in the first round by one of the few teams that could match them in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As of this writing, guess who the Maple Leafs would play in the first round? You got it. It’s the Lightning.
If this scenario were to come to pass again, it would be a nightmare for the Maple Leafs. Yes they’d have home ice advantage in the series. Yes they were just one shot away last season from advancing over the Lightning. They’d even be seen as a slight favorite over the Lightning in a potential seven-game series.
But none of that matters here for the purposes of this discussion. We need to ask ourselves an important question. How and why does this keep happening? Two teams the caliber of the Maple Leafs and Lightning should be a Conference Final, not a first-round matchup.
Sadly, this is what Gary Bettman and the NHL wants. This is what the players agreed to. This current playoff format continues to allow these scenarios to play out.
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In other words, the success of the Maple Leafs is ultimately punishing them. And with that, a fatal flaw is exposed in the way the current playoff format works. Let’s set the scene for you.
The Playoff Format
A quick refresher for those who are not familiar with the format. The top-three teams from each division make the playoffs. This makes six teams from each conference. Then the two next best teams in each conference become wildcards. There’s your 16 teams.
Now here’s where the format comes into play. No matter what the team records are, teams are assigned an opponent based on the following:
- The top team in the conference plays against the second wildcard.
- The other division winner plays against the first wildcard.
- The second-place team in each division plays against the third-place team in their division.
That last part is where the Maple Leafs get involved. Despite being in third place in the NHL standings, they sit eight points behind their division rival the Boston Bruins. That puts the Maple Leafs second in the Atlantic which according to the playoff format means they play whoever is third in the Atlantic. Once again that’s the Lightning.
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This is the fatal flaw in the current playoff format. Good teams get punished while worse teams can get more favorable matchups. That should never be the case. Winning should be the thing that gets rewarded, not a specific playoff format. But this is the NHL. Losing in style does get rewarded, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
The NHL wanted to build rivalries in the playoffs. That was a big selling point to this playoff format. While healthy rivalries are a good thing, proper regular season scheduling can accomplish that task. When it comes to the playoffs, top regular season teams should be rewarded for completing a grueling season.
Instead, unless the Maple Leafs reel in the Bruins, they face the real possibility of having to play the defending Eastern Conference champions in the first round. They could very easily lose that series. What was the whole point of the regular season then? That’s what third overall gets you? There has to be a better way.
Comparing Playoff Formats
Let’s look at the current format against the old 1-vs-8 format to illustrate the point. We will use the standings as of New Year’s Day to select the playoff teams. For the purposes of this exercise, we will use points percentage to determine the seedings with an imbalanced number of games completed.
Here is what the Eastern Conference playoffs would look like under the current format. The number in parenthesis represents a team’s ranking in the overall standings.
- Boston (1) vs. New York Islanders (13)
- Carolina (2) vs. Pittsburgh (11)
- Toronto (3) vs. Tampa Bay (8)
- New Jersey (6) vs. Washington (10)
Now let’s look at the Eastern Conference playoffs under the old format. Each division winner is 1-2. The rest fall in line below them.
- Boston (1) vs. New York Islanders (8)
- Carolina (2) vs. Pittsburgh (7)
- Toronto (3) vs. Washington (6)
- New Jersey (4) vs. Tampa Bay (5)
In this case, the first two matchups do remain the same. However the Maple Leafs would draw the Capitals instead of the Lightning. Matchups make a huge difference in a seven-game series. Not only does the current playoff format hurt the Maple Leafs, it hurts the Lightning too. How is it fair that the eighth overall team plays against the third overall team in round one? But that’s what the NHL wants.
Change is Needed, But None is Forthcoming
This will keep happening when you have great teams bunched in the same division. All of the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Lightning are among the best in the NHL and legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. But since they are each in the Atlantic, one of them is guaranteed to lose in the first round.
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This has to change. If things fall a certain way, the playoff format could lead to massive changes on the losing first-round team. If that’s Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs, imagine the outrage.
However the format is not changing anytime soon. Teams will have to face their situation head on no matter who their opponent is. Sadly the playoff system is flawed. Too bad the NHL won’t do anything about it either.
That is the fatal flaw of the current playoff format. It could ultimately cost the Maple Leafs a chance to be great with their current core.