Bottom line up front? Once again, ‘It’s All Relative.’ That’s right – changing the format of NHL playoffs is not that different any way you slice it. It does not matter whether the system is OT & SO with two points for the winner and one or none for the loser, OT & SO with three points for the winner and one for the loser, or the old one point each for a tie. Your average number of new teams in the playoffs each year still hovers around the post-Lockout average of 4.83.
So when listening to a repeat of the Power Play on XM Radio last Sunday, I heard discussion on the question of the day (‘If you were the Commissioner for a day, what would you do to improve the League?’). When one caller said they would like to go back to the Top 16 (T16) teams making the playoffs regardless of Conference or Division affiliation, I thought, ‘It’s all relative, and yet, intriguing.’ Could it be somehow that option might make a difference in the average outcome? And while we’re at it, what if there was a higher regard for Divisional play?
Curiosity has gotten the better of us again here at On Goal Analysis (OGA). Below is our analysis…
The Top 16 Option
If you take the ending records of all teams since the Lockout and line up the T16 teams, what changes to the historical outcome occur? Our hypothesis is there is little difference in who makes it into the playoffs from what already occurred.
Analysis produced the chart below with the number one seed at the top and number 16 at bottom:
In 2005-06, there is no change in who makes it into the post-season. Every other season, however, has some adjustment:
2006-07: Islanders fans would not be happy that their team’s only post-season appearance since the Lockout would be denied by Colorado who finished the season with three more standings points. The advantage in numbers of teams would be in favor of the Western Conference, nine-to-seven.
2007-08: Hurricanes fans would have liked to have seen if Rod Brind’Amour could have made it back from his torn ACL for the playoffs as CAR would have ousted NSH by one point in the standings. Playoff team advantage this year would have been nine-to-seven, East.
2008-09: Again, only one team would have found their way into the playoffs that wasn’t there before. This season, it would have been the Florida Panthers at the expense of Anaheim by one win. This would have seen a non-traditional Floridian team in the playoffs for three of the four post-Lockout seasons to date. Having evened out who had the playoff team advantage last season, the Eastern Conference would have continued their dominance for the second straight year, nine-teams-to-seven.
2009-10: This season would have the most changes of any post-Stoppage year with two different teams in and two others out. The West would dominate with STL and CGY entering the playoffs at the expense of PHI and MTL. This is quite interesting given how far those two Eastern teams went and the fact the historical Eastern finalist would have been watching the playoffs instead from the 19th Hole. The West at this point would have had one more team overall in the playoffs than the East.
2010-11: Stars fans would have seen their team back in the playoffs for the first time in two years and Joe Nieuwendyk would have been vindicated for holding on to Brad Richards. The NY Rangers would have been the victim for a second straight year for notching two less points than Dallas. Advantage West, nine-to-seven.
Thus for the six seasons, the West would have put two more total teams in the playoffs than the East over the six years. This effectively kills the idea the West would dramatically dominate the playoffs in a T16 world.
The T16 method would have also made for an additional average of 1.17 teams’ difference to playoff matchups if you continue to include the changes that historically occurred. Approximately six new teams would have entered the playoffs each year from those preceding. This stands as a noticeable change, but, as hypothesized, not by an order of magnitude.
There are two interesting twists to this method, however. There would have been an average of 4.17 cross-Conference pairings in the first round of a post-Lockout, T16 playoff system. Also, an average of 2.67 opening round matchups would have involved travel across two or more time zones for play. This is not unusual in the Western Conference. But in this case, it would happen an average of 2.17 times for Eastern teams in Round 1 and potentially in the other rounds instead of only in Round 4.
The question comes down to whether or not this would be the NHL’s preference. Overall, our hypothesis that there is little change here is correct in terms of the number if changes to the historical outcome.
That Other Thought
There was one other consideration to ponder. What if the emphasis on divisional play was doubled?
In other words, what if the top two teams from each division made it into each Conference’s top six seeds followed by the next two highest point-earners? How radical of a change might that be?
Interestingly enough, only twice would one team who otherwise sat out displace another. In 2009-10, ATL would have bumped MTL for only the second time since the Lockout. And in 2010-11, CHI would have lost their slot to CGY, underscoring a loss of so many players from your Stanley Cup champion team definitely equals a bad idea. See the table below to see how this falls out:
The big difference comes in changes to first round matchups. In all but 2006-07 (with three different pairings) and 2010-11 (two Eastern, and three Western), all eight of the opening round matchups are different. Does that constitute significant change? While it may produce a different outcome as to who fights their way into the Finals, only four teams of 48 – 8.3% – are completely different from the historic record.
What is not known, and was not discussed here because it is pure speculation, is how differently teams would compete if they knew they were within reach of the 16th seed but were looking at 17th, or was about to fall behind a number two Division team with 10 less points in the standings.
Any way you slice it, whether you go with a T16 method or double the emphasis on regional rivalries, the differences are relative. It all comes down to preference of method, and it will always stink when your favorite team is on the outside looking in.