Ed. note: @DaveLozo touched on this subject two weeks ago on NHL.com, but I’ve looked at it in greater depth and drawn different conclusions.
If the NHL playoffs began today, the first round matchups would look like this:
- EAST: BOS v OTT, PHI v TOR, FLA v NJD, NYR v PIT
- WEST: CHI v SJS, MIN v NSH, DAL v VAN, DET v STL
Fast-forward one year, to the newly-realigned NHL. If the playoffs began (one year from) today, the first round would be dramatically different:
- A: VAN v LAK, SJS v PHX
- B: CHI v STL, MIN v DET
- C: BOS v OTT, FLA v TOR
- D: PHI v NJD, NYR v PIT
Two playoff pairings are unchanged: Bruins-Senators and Rangers-Penguins. The changes, though, are cause for concern. The Stars (39 pts., 5th in Conf. B) and Predators (38 pts., 6th in Conf. B) are out, while the Coyotes (37 pts., 3rd in Conf. A) and Kings (34 pts., 4th in Conf. A) are in.
Some (including Mr. Lozo) argue these changes are irrelevant, as inferior teams sneak into the playoffs while superior teams hit the links every April under the current system. In reality, the “divisional” playoff format only magnifies the flaws of the current system. Applying the NHL’s realignment for 2012-2013 to the six completed post-lockout seasons illustrates the point.
- 2010-2011: Kings (98 pts.) out, Stars (95 pts.) in.
- 2009-2010: Avalanche (95 pts.) out, Blues (90 pts.) in.
- 2008-2009: Hurricanes (97 pts.) & Rangers (95 pts.) out, Panthers (93 pts.) & Sabres (91 pts.) in.
- 2007-2008: Flyers (95 pts.) out, Sabres (90 pts.) in.
- 2006-2007: Thrashers/Jets (97 pts.) out, Maple Leafs (91 pts.) in.
- 2005-2006: Oilers (95 pts.) out, Wild (84 pts.) in.
Isn’t the raison d’etre for the regular season to determine which teams are worthy of advancement to the Stanley Cup Playoffs? In what parallel universe is an 84-point team more playoff-worthy than a 95-point team?
It’s true that the same thing happens every season under the current system, albeit not in such dramatic fashion. The contrast is largely muted by the fact that the teams are divided into large, impersonal, fifteen-team Eastern and Western conferences, with the top eight in each making the playoffs. No matter how many points a team has, it’s hard to argue they deserve a playoff seed when finishing ninth in the conference.
On the other hand, making the conferences much smaller (and more intimate) invites close comparison. Inequities (such as the 05-06 Oilers-Wild example) stand out. Today, the ninth-place GM might offer up a weak, “We’d be in the playoffs, if only we were in the other conference”, but even that GM knows it’s a ridiculous argument. Tomorrow, however, GMs will state with conviction, “Under the old alignment, we’d be in the playoffs”. The new “divisional” playoff system will breed frustration and discontent, from fans to players to coaches to General Managers, and it’s only a matter of time before a 100-point team misses the playoffs.
The most equitable playoff system would be one in which the four conference champions claim the top four seeds, then the remaining twelve slots are filled with the next best twelve teams, period. Seed them one through sixteen and go.
Naysayers will complain about the potential travel “nightmares” of first round matchups between, say, Boston and Vancouver. That five-hour flight is not much worse than the (potential) real-life first round matchups between Chicago and San Jose (3:41) or Dallas and Vancouver (3:32). Besides, I’ve seen 24/7. I’ve seen Ryan Callahan get his shoulder iced while eating a chicken parmigiana sandwich on the New York Rangers’ charter flight. NHL players don’t exactly squeeze into a Coach-class seat with a little bag of peanuts, next to a crying baby (insert lame Sidney Crosby joke here, if you must). Travel in the NHL today isn’t a problem; time-zone changes are. Since 1967, however, the league has stretched across North America. Deal with it.
The NHL realignment is a bold, forward-thinking move. The new playoff system is a big step backward.