A 5-2 home loss to a division rival, as the New York Rangers suffered at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday night, is normally not a good thing. The Rangers are a strong team in playoff position and on pace for more than 100 points. So, they should want to win as many games as they can to get the highest playoff seed possible, right?
Wrong. Thanks to the NHL’s new playoff seeding system that debuted in the 2013-14 season, skews between divisions are not normalized, leading to scenarios where a strong team has an incentive to lose.
Avoiding the Metropolitan Bracket
The Rangers find themselves in one of these scenarios. Their loss to the Blue Jackets dropped them to fourth in the Metropolitan Division, which has easily been the strongest division in the league this season. The Blue Jackets have 83 points while the Rangers have 82. The Jackets also have two games in hand on the Rangers.
If the season were to end today, the Rangers would be the top wild-card team in the Eastern Conference – a much more desirable position than that of the third-place Blue Jackets. In the league’s division-based bracket setup for determining playoff matchups, the Rangers would move over to the much weaker Atlantic Division. They would play the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, as the Habs hold the top spot (mostly because some team has to by default).
*Columbus scores a goal*
*MSG crowd goes wild in celebration*
*The NHL sees nothing wrong with this scene*
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) February 27, 2017
The Canadiens, with only 74 points, are decisively behind the Rangers in the standings. That’s clearly a first-round opponent that’s preferable to the defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, even if the Penguins’ opponent (assume it’s the Jackets in this scenario) got past them, there is a good chance they would be looking at the league-leading Washington Capitals in the second round.
The Rangers, meanwhile, would get a vulnerable Habs team, and then likely one of the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, or Florida Panthers. Any one of those would still be preferable to the Caps, despite the Blueshirts’ recent playoff success against them. The Rangers would not have to face a Metropolitan Division team until the Conference Final, if they got there.
The Rangers, therefore, are better off staying where they are. It is in their best interest to win enough games to secure the top wild-card spot, but not so many where they get in as one of the top three seeds in their division. Their reward for that would be placement in the bracket of death.
The flaws of this playoff system have perhaps never been more pronounced. Non-playoff teams tanking for high draft picks is one problem that still needs to be thought through more. However, this situation, where a playoff team would essentially be punished for winning more games and finishing with a higher seed, is a bigger problem. Losing should never be the goal of any team, but especially not a playoff contender.
Because of players’ competitiveness and integrity, they will never truly aim to lose (although the New York Islanders did a decent tank job last year to slip down and play the Panthers in the first round instead of the Penguins). Players will play hard and say the right things, like Derek Stepan did after Sunday’s loss.
“You can call me wacky if you want, but I believe in Hockey gods. If you try to pick your spot, it’s the kiss of death.” Stepan on standings
— Blueshirt Bulletin (@NYRBlueBulletin) February 27, 2017
The league, however, will often unwittingly reward teams if they do lose. This problem has an easy solution, but it remains to be seen if the NHL would ever consider it: revert back to the Conference-wide seeding that was in place before the 2013-14 season, rather than forcing more intra-division matchups with the current system.
This system mostly balanced out divisional inequality, with the only real flaw being that a winner of a weak division would automatically get a top-three seed. Taking away divisions as a factor at all in playoff seeding would solve that, but for now, the old system as it was (with the exception of there now being two divisions in each conference instead of three) would still be a massive improvement.
Under that format with the current divisions, the Rangers would be rewarded for finishing with a better record. While they would play the Canadiens in their current position, a move up to third would pit them against the Senators, who have a worse record than the Canadiens (granted, they are only two points behind and have two games in hand, so the teams could flip positions at some point). Incentives for winning! Imagine that! It’s much more fair and appropriate than getting to play a Penguins team that has 10 more points than the Habs.
The NHL’s playoff system does foster stronger intra-division rivalries and also creates a more digestible bracket format. Those pros, however, do not come close to negating the cons of scenarios like the one in which the Rangers (and the Jackets) find themselves. Change isn’t coming this year, so for now, the fourth-place Rangers would be best served to tread water in the standings.