Making Sense of the NHL’s New Playoff Format

New Playoff Format(Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
(Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2013-14 NHL season has brought a major change to the format of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the post-season tournament still features 8 teams from each conference,and still requires 16 wins to get to drink from the Cup, the path to get there has changed quite dramatically.

Gone are the 1-8 seedings for each conference, and in their place are 12 division leaders (3 from each division) plus four wildcard teams. Also gone is the bane of every Stanley Cup Playoff pool’s existence, the re-seeding of teams after every round. What we’re left with, while far from perfect, is a tournament that will likely feature more divisional matchups in rounds 1 & 2, and provide a more deterministic route to Lord Stanley’s cup. Yes, I just called the Stanley Cup Playoffs a deterministic system.  Deal with it.

The New Playoff Format in a Nutshell

The NHL describes the new format like this:

As has been the case since 1979-80, 16 teams will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This season, however, the format is a set bracket that is largely division-based with wild cards.

The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.

In the First Round, the division winner with the best record in each conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lesser record; the wild card team with the better record will play the other division winner.

The teams finishing second and third in each division will meet in the First Round within the bracket headed by their respective division winners. First-round winners within each bracket play one another in the Second Round to determine the four participants in the Conference Finals.

Clear as mud? OK, I admit I had to re-read that description a couple times to get it straight in my head–but then, I’m a more visual learner. Luckily, the NHL’s website has a visual bracket that is updated constantly:

2014 NHL Bracket for New Playoff Format (
2014 NHL Playoff Bracket as of 4/13/14 (

From here, it’s easy to see that the playoffs are a… well, a deterministic system.  Okay, okay–set bracket.  That is, the future round matchups are easy to understand.  For example, the only way the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins can meet this year in the new playoff format is in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Oh, and there’s also a video describing the new setup:

Ahhh. Much better. Now, if there’s one important point to take away from that initial description above, it’s this: “the format is a set bracket that is largely division based.” If you take nothing else from the description, remember that–there’s a quiz coming up.

Division Based? Largely, but not Totally…

Looking at the bracket above, it’s also easy to see that the first two rounds will be loaded with divisional matchups.  This is by design.  By placing at least three teams from the same division in each four-team bracket, the NHL is all but guaranteeing that divisional rivalries will be front and center right out of the gate in the new playoff format. I know, both Eastern Conference brackets and the Central Division bracket are all completely intra-divisional–but that’s just a happy accident. Up until the last few days, the East’s two wild card teams would have been slotted into the other division’s bracket. Only a late run by the Columbus Blue Jackets changed the seeding to its current state.  Let’s take a look at how that came about to shed some light on how the wild cards work in the new playoff format.

On April 9, both teams had only 3 games remaining, and the Red Wings(90 points) held a one point lead on Columbus (89 points). Under this year’s new playoff format, that meant that the Metropolitan Division’s Blue Jackets–as the second wild card at the time–would pair up against the East’s top seed, the Boston Bruins (114 points) and be part of the Atlantic Division bracket.  The Atlantic Division’s Red Wings, as the first wild card, would play the lower seeded division winner, the Pens (105 points), and be part of the Metropolitan Division bracket. Fast forward to the final standings (the above bracket image). With Columbus jumping over the Wings into the first wild card spot, they have now locked up a first round matchup with lower-ranked division winner Pittsburgh and pushed Detroit into a first round series against the top seeded Bruins.

The important part to remember is that this logic holds no matter which division the two wild card teams belong to. The second wild card (the 8 seed in earlier years) will always play their conference’s division winner with the most points (the 1 seed), and the first wild card (7 seed) gets to play their conference’s other division winner (2 seed). Both teams then remain in that division’s bracket throughout the first two rounds. The top three teams in each division will always be in the same bracket–it’s only the wild card teams that can (potentially) jump to another division’s bracket as the number 4 seed.

Beyond Round 2 Under the New Playoff Format

Once we get past the first two rounds of this new playoff format, the matchups will be clear, but who will get home ice advantage? Again, taking from the NHL’s description of the new playoff format:

Home-ice advantage through the first two rounds goes to the team that placed higher in the regular-season standings. In the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, home-ice advantage goes to the team that had the better regular-season record — regardless of the teams’ final standing in their respective divisions.

Okay, what does that mean to us? Let’s refer back to our trusty bracket image above. Suppose the New York Rangers advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, and wind up facing the Montreal Canadiens. Even though the Rangers were the 2nd seed in the Metropolitan Division and the Habs dropped to the Atlantic Division’s 3rd seed (thanks to Tampa Bay’s victory over Washington), Montreal would still get home ice advantage due to their better record during the season (100 points to the Rangers’ 96 points).  Similarly, if the Stanley Cup Finals were to feature the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks, home ice would go to the Sharks (111 points), even though they were the Pacific Division’s 2 seed and the Pens (max 110 points) won the Metropolitan Division.

 The New Playoff Format is Still Far From Perfect

Lest we give the idea that the NHL’s new playoff format is the best thing since sliced bread, understand that there are still some serious flaws here. Leaving aside the unbalanced conferences (we’re not going to beat that particular dead horse here), there is potentially a very large advantage to finishing 2nd or 3rd in a weak division. As an example of this advantage, we’ll look to the Metropolitan Division and present a very plausible scenario that very nearly played out this year under the new playoff format.

Just a few short days ago, the Metropolitan’s third place team (The Philadelphia Flyers) had fewer points than the first wild card team (Detroit Red Wings). Under the new playoff format, the wild card Wings would be seeded lower than the Flyers within the division.  This means that, as a “reward” for winning the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins could quite plausibly have had a tougher first round matchup than the second place New York Rangers. The fact that the actual playoff matchups didn’t work out that way this time doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future. Our fear is that, because the bullet’s been dodged this season, the league will keep its head in the sand and not even attempt to address this obvious drawback.

So there you have it–the NHL’s new playoff format in all its glory.  Do the benefits of having a set bracket and more early round divisional matchups outweigh the problems?  Time will tell, but there’s no doubt the Stanley Cup will remain the toughest championship trophy to win in professional sports.