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NHL Realignment Good, Conference Playoffs Bad

Ed. note:  @DaveLozo touched on this subject two weeks ago on, 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:


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.




Taking On Concussions

This is an attempt to logically and economically construct an argument for a proper course of action to work on the concussion issue.

Paraphrasing, I sent the following comments to “The Warroom” on XM Homeice. ‘…The issue with concussions is a kinetic one. While not bullets, players are nonetheless an object with mass and velocity which strike another player, either in the head, or hit them into another object which the head strikes (such as the boards, the ice, etc.) causing a concussion. The only way to solve the problem is to alter the mass or velocity in the equation…. ’

You do not want to change the game’s velocity in any noticeable way or you may not be able to sell the game to fans. You will neither legislate a decrease in velocity (i.e. make a Trap mandatory, for instance), nor will the entire NHL alter the way they play the game so it is slower (such as not requiring players to skate to near exhaustion for 30-45 seconds at a time per shift). The current velocity at which the game is played is exciting and sells the sport to the public who buys the tickets and merchandise, making the game possible.

You are also not going to actively decrease the mass of the striking object. If the object in question is the player, there is a set range from a Nathan Gerbe to Zedno Chara in height and something like a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to a Dustin Byfuglien in weight. That total mass is also in the neighborhood of 7 – 10% larger than when the rule book was first written and will continue to grow as a 6’4” and 230-pound player who can skate, hit, shoot and score is a desired addition to any lineup.  The mass of the puck which can be shot or deflected into the head has not changed since the rule book was written. And finally, there is some difference in sticks, but a range of lengths and compositions that does not vary too much is the rule book standard.

So a more passive answer is likely called for here. Players’ pads, and primarily at the shoulders, elbows and knees, are what ‘carry’ a player’s mass toward striking another player and potentially causing a concussion more than any other object on the ice. They should therefore be targeted in any attempt to protect a player from concussive injury.

The NHL is looking at adjusting the caps on the shoulder pads/protectors which would theoretically lessen the velocity and impact of the (player) object before it strikes a player in a dangerous manner. I contend they need to look at the elbow and knee pads as well.

But I also personally believe the helmet should be looked at because it just is not protecting the head from kinetic hits. Part of the issue is player perception. Instead of the military way of looking at my Kevlar helmet as ballistic protection from a kinetic object so I absolutely will not leave camp without it on my head, NHL players tend to think of their helmet with somewhat less regard. If the helmet cradled the head in such a way as to truly cushion it from the impact of a striking object without being overly cumbersome, players would, one would assume, be more apt to take the proper wear of the helmet with a higher sense of conviction.

So in terms of adjusting pads and improving helmets, the question should be: Can a technological change diffuse that velocity and mass in order to protect the player’s brain from concussion?

Consider this. What if the entire player’s uniform was designed to disperse the kinetic impact of any blow to the wearer? By this I mean the same effect as the very outer rings of ripples when a rock is tossed into a pond versus the point of the initial, thunking splash?

I hate to point to science fiction. But the green graphics of the attack fighter planes’ missiles striking the alien defensive field from the movie ‘Independence Day’ comes to my mind. As the small dart of a missile strikes the shield, the force of its impact and resulting explosion blossoms outward in a circle away from the point of impact. Why cannot this be done to clothing, pads and helmets for hockey players? An answer should come in two parts:

  1. The helmet, upon receiving an impact, should spread the resulting kinetic energy across the entire span of the helmet versus only both the point of impact (most severe) and the opposite side of the brain where that strikes the skull.
  2. From the clothing to the pads underneath, build the ‘armor’ out of materials that absorb the shock of a kinetic event and, again, diffuse it across the entire pad/uniform system.

These ideas are not so farfetched. One answer may come from one or more of these web-based articles:

Or this article on Shear Thickening Fluids which would absorb, versus diffuse or disperse, the energy from a kinetic impact may have a potential answer:

It is time to invest in some research – quite possibly in conjunction with the armed forces – and apply some technological solutions to the problem. Find the material that absorbs and/or disperses the force of an impact across the entire uniform and helmet to protect the body and brain from injury. Since there will be no active attempt to decrease velocity or mass of anything on the ice, go for the passive answer of providing more protective equipment to players to lengthen their careers and keep them more off of the trainers’ tables.

Then Gerbe can more safely go into the corner and fight for the puck on Chara’s stick…

Twitter Updates

  • ...This suggests that the LAK will defeat CHI in Game 6 to play the NYR for the Stanley Cup 4 years ago
  • Since 2005/6, when a Round 3 team wins Game 5, they lose Game 6 66.7% of the time; also, Western series are determined by Game 5.889... 4 years ago
  • ...So those stats point to the NYR claiming victory tonight and playing the winner from the Western Conference in the Finals 4 years ago
  • Since 2005/6, when a Round 3 team wins Game 5, they lose Game 6 60% of the time; also, Eastern series are determined by Game 5.778... 4 years ago
  • 4. Top 4 in each DIV play 2 rounds seeded within the DIV, 1 round versus other DIV champ and then the Finals between the Conference champs. 4 years ago

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