Right now, you can watch the top two teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference — the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins — face off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No one had a better record than those two teams on their side of the league, with Presidents Trophy winner Washington racking up 120 points to Pittsburgh’s 104.
Over in the West, it’s the same story. The two clubs with the best regular season records are currently playing each other, as the Dallas Stars, owners of 109 points, meet the St. Louis Blues, with 107 points.
It’s great hockey. But there’s a problem.
Once these first and second seeds in each side of the league finish their best-of-seven series against one another, the winners won’t be playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. At least, not yet. And two of these top four teams will have no shot at all at being among the last four teams in the postseason. That’s right, there’s no way for the first and second best teams in each conference from the regular season to meet in the Conference Finals.Jersey Jayhawks Stitched Joel Authentic White Embiid Basketball 21 College
You see, the NHL doesn’t simply take the top eight seeds in each conference and create an NBA-style bracket with a first round where one plays eight, two plays seven, three plays six and four plays five. Nor do they restrict the early playoff rounds to in-division play.
The NHL does something much more complicated and it sometimes hurts teams that finish near the top of the standings, forcing some out of the postseason earlier than they might exit in a cleaner bracket system.
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.
The NHL’s postseason structure can’t exactly be explained in an elevator pitch. And while the intention of this playoff format might be to leverage divisional rivalries — as most of the first and second round games will be played between teams in the same division — it’s flawed and can get awkward some years, like it is right now.
This season, one division in each conference sent five teams to the postseason. Both wild cards in the East came from the Metropolitan Division and, in the West, from the Central Division. So the Metropolitan Division New York Islanders ended up in a bracket with three teams from the Atlantic Division. In the West, the Central Division Nashville Predators are in with three teams from the Pacific Division. The league has themselves three quarters of the way into a system that emphasizes divisional rivalries.
I’m not advocating for it, but if the NHL truly wants to make the early playoff rounds about divisional rivalries, they could get rid of the wild cards and keep the first two rounds strictly within the four divisions, with the top four teams in each playing one another, starting with 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 in the first round. But, the flaw there is, if one division features several of the teams with the best records in the conference, some of the top clubs from the regular season are still guaranteed to get knocked out early.
So, better yet, do what the NBA does. Just take the top 8 teams in each conference and have 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. Then you’ll avoid the ridiculousness taking place this year.
Due to the league’s odd playoff structure, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished sixth in the East, had an easier road to the Eastern Conference Finals than top seeds Washington and Pittsburgh. Tampa played the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, the team with the worst regular season record of any that made the playoffs from the East. This is a bit absurd. So much for rewarding the top-seeded Caps for their historic regular season. Tampa Bay got that prize instead due to a flawed system. It’s the system we have to live with for right now, but it’s flawed.
The situation playing out in the West is odd as well, where either San Jose or Nashville, the sixth and seventh seeds respectively, will be able to make the Western Conference Finals without having to go through either of the top two teams, Dallas and St. Louis, while they battle each other instead. Second-best-in-the-West St. Louis was stuck playing third-best Chicago in the opening round. Unlike Washington in the East, the’s West top-spot-earner Dallas, as it turned out, actually got to face the bottom-seeded Minnesota Wild in their conference’s first round.
As the quarter finals wrap up this week, the narrative from some media will likely be about how top regular season team Washington/Pittsburgh or Dallas/St. Louis failed to make it beyond the second round. But, in reality, the NHL’s format makes it absolutely impossible for all four of them to get there; this would be like an NCAA Tournament where there’s no way for the top four seeds to all end up in the Final Four. I can’t imagine that going over well with even the most casual college basketball fans who fill out a bracket each March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, for the fans who’ve waited all year, the players who worked all season or the owners, who can earn more revenue the deeper their team goes in the playoffs.
Of course, there is a real possibility that six-seed Tampa Bay defeats the winner of Washington/Pittsburgh, or the winner of six-seed San Jose/seven-seed Nashville could beat the winner of St. Louis/Dallas and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. But that upset should occur in an earlier round.
Brown Antonio Jersey Maroon 27 College Stitched Teams that finish with the best regular-season records should be rewarded for that accomplishment when they earn their higher seed in the playoffs; the path for a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run should not be easier for a team that finished with a worse regular-season record.
Otherwise what were all those extra victories in the 82-game regular season for, other than home ice advantage in a playoff series? Teams should get more than that in return for what they spent six months playing for.