NHL’s Playoff Format Needs Restructuring

Gary Bettman and the NHL, your playoff format and standings require some tinkering. When the league realigned the divisions for 2013-14, a new playoff format came along with it. The emphasis was divisional play, rekindling rivalries and having teams progress from regionals matchups to a Conference and ultimately the Stanley Cup Finals. The introduction of the wild card system however has created a convoluted experience for all fans, casual or hardcore.

Under the current format, teams look to jockey for position within their division with the top three teams in each division automatically qualifying for the playoffs. With two divisions within each conference, that accounts for six of eight possible playoff spots. The other two are decided by the wild card, which means we could have four teams from each division or three from one and five from another. The other team would then cross over into the other division for the playoffs.

It also means if we have four teams qualify from each division, a team from the Pacific Division could cross over into the Central Division for the postseason and vice versa. What happens when, for example’s sake, the Calgary Flames cross over into the Central Division and win two series’ against those teams? Are the Flames the Central Division champions? As Dave Lozo said, it’s a clunky, confusing format that simultaneously emphasizes divisional matchups and throws them out the window depending on the standings.

It’s a convoluted system, and it needs to be simplified with the NHL returning to a purer version of the best on best tournament format.

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Current Playoff Format Is Flawed

Gary Bettman, Fantasy Hockey
Gary Bettman (Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE)

There are some radical ideas out there with some suggesting the league should just negate divisions and conferences. Some want to go back to seeing the top 16 teams qualifying regardless if they’re in the Eastern or Western Conference.

You’d get some peculiar playoff matches based off the current standings with the New York Rangers playing the Anaheim Ducks (No. 6 vs. No. 11). For what it’s worth, that’s a five and a half hour flight from LAX to JFK, not including potential delays or transportation to airport and hotel. The increase in travel would tire players and the NHLPA would never go for it.

Here’s another scenario that’s less likely, but not farfetched; what if a team that finished sixth in the Metropolitan Division missed the playoffs despite having more points than the third-place team in the Atlantic Division?

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It’s Not Logical, It’s Nonsensical

Henrik Lundqvist Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist and Brendan Gallagher (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

If the playoffs started today, you’d have some absurd matchups. The Montreal Canadiens would be rewarded for being the best team in their division and draw the Metropolitan’s fourth place team, the Rangers.

The Rangers have more points than the Canadiens, though, so is this truly a reward for Montreal being a division leader? In this particular format, it doesn’t make sense. In a four vs. five format however the Rangers (4) and Canadiens (5) does make sense. New York would be rewarded for being the better team in the regular season with home ice, whereas in the current system they’re a road team.

Another series sees two of the best teams in the NHL face off in the first round in Pittsburgh and Columbus. Shouldn’t both these respective clubs be rewarded for being among the top three teams in the league? In this system, the second and third place teams in the entire NHL will meet in the first round, instead of a more appropriate time like the Conference Final. Shouldn’t the Penguins and Blue Jackets draw one of the weaker teams in the Conference to qualify, like the Ottawa Senators or Toronto Maple Leafs?



Atlantic Central


(1) Washington

(W2) Boston

(1) Montreal

(W1) NY Rangers

(1) Chicago

(W2) Nashville

(1) San Jose

(W1) Calgary

(2) Pittsburgh

(3) Columbus

(2) Ottawa

(3) Toronto

(2) Minnesota

(3) St. Louis

(2) Anaheim

(3) Edmonton

Instead the Senators and Maple Leafs, who are the sixth and seventh place teams in the Eastern Conference, play each other in the first round. In what universe does having two versus three, and sixth versus seven in the first round make sense?

In the Western Conference, there are a few sensible playoff matchups based on the NHL’s point system. There’s Chicago versus Nashville, Anaheim versus Edmonton, both the wild card teams are within their respective divisions, and for the most part it’s balanced. The one head scratcher is that the wild card should, by theory, be the two weakest teams in the Conference that qualify. That said, Calgary has more points than Nashville and St. Louis but is technically a “wild card” team.

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A Restructured Playoff Format

The 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The wild card is completely unnecessary, and in reality so are divisions. Divisions are a nice little niche thing when it comes to creating the regular season schedule, minimizing travel and utilizing geography to create rivalries. When it comes to the playoffs, divisions mean nothing. Winning a division doesn’t mean anything, outside of a team being able to market itself as a “Division Champion” to season ticket holders. Who cares?

If there’s one point we can agree on, it’s that teams shouldn’t be punished for having strong regular season records. We want to give more credibility and reasoning for the 82-game schedule each team plays. The playoff format should be pure and straightforward — the more points you get, the better your playoff positioning.


Western Conference

Eastern Conference

(1) Chicago

(8) Nashville

(1) Washington

(8) Boston

(2) Minnesota

(7) St. Louis

(2) Pittsburgh

(7) Toronto

(3) San Jose

(6) Calgary

(3) Columbus

(6) Ottawa

(4) Anaheim

(5) Edmonton

(4) NY Rangers

(5) Montreal

The NHL should go to a system that better reflects purity and makes the regular season more credible. If you’re one of the eight best teams in your Conference, you get in but play the appropriate team on the opposite side of the spectrum.

In this format the top three teams in the Eastern Conference; Washington (1), Pittsburgh (2) and Columbus (3) get rewarded for having the best regular seasons. Whereas Boston (8), Toronto (7) and Ottawa (6) get tougher first round opponents. This would also correct the series between the Canadiens and the Rangers, rightfully giving the Rangers (who have more points) home ice advantage. In the Western Conference both Nashville (8) and St. Louis (7) would rightfully be the bottom two seeds. Calgary (6) would still however draw San Jose (3), and Anaheim (4) would still face Edmonton (5).

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The NHL talks a lot about rivalries, and it’s reflected in the schedule with teams playing a hefty chunk of their schedule against regional foes. What do they do about the remaining games though? There are individual stories that are still highly marketable without the divisional playoff and wildcard system. Luckily in the Western Conference, most of them are regional series’.

In the Eastern Conference you’ve got Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals (the likely President’s Trophy winners) looking to win their first Stanley Cup, but they’ve still got to get by the Bruins who are led by one of the best goal scorers this season in Brad Marchand. Then there’s the TV ratings mega series between the Penguins and the Leafs with Sidney Crosby playing against a Canadian team. The Rangers and Canadiens are an Original Six series and Columbus, having a franchise year, hoping to win the club’s first ever playoff series against Ottawa.

There are marketable series’, TV ratings and natural rivalries to still see. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, we’re just adding some much needed sensible structure to the NHL’s Cinderella ball.