Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.
Fast Forward: The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs
It’s that time of year, folks – the time we begin to play a game called, “If the Playoffs Began Today.” Since next season will bring with it realignment and a dramatically different playoff format, I decided to take a look at how the playoffs would differ if they began one year from today.
First, let’s see what the first round match-ups would look like if the playoffs began April 8, 2013:
EASTERN CONFERENCE (team point totals in parentheses):
1. PIT (58) vs 8. NYI (42)
2. MTL (55) vs 7. NYR (42)
3. WSH (42) vs 6. OTT (44)
4. BOS (52) vs 5. TOR (46)
1. CHI (62) vs 8. DET (43)
2. ANA (57) vs 7. STL (44)
3. VAN (48) vs 6. MIN (46)
4. LAK (48) vs 5. SJS (47)
Beginning next season, the NHL shifts from a three-division to a two-division format in each conference, with Columbus and Detroit moving into the East. The top three teams in each division will make the playoffs, with the bottom two seeds being wild cards. It will be possible, then, for five teams from one division to make the playoffs. In the first round, the two division winners play the wild cards, while the 2nd and 3rd seeds in each division play each other. If the playoffs began one year from today, the first round match-ups would be as follows:
Division D no.1 PIT (58) vs Wild Card no.2 DET (43)
Division C no.1 MTL (55) vs Wild Card no.1 OTT (44)
Division C no.2 BOS (52) vs Division C no.3 TOR (46)
Division D no.2 NYR (42) vs Division D no.3 WSH (42)
In the East, only one team changes as Detroit replaces the Islanders in the final playoff seed. The match-ups are quite different, however, with only Boston – Toronto unchanged. Who do you think Pittsburgh would rather face in the first round, the Islanders or Red Wings? Also, the Rangers catch a break under the new format, facing Washington instead of Montreal. Let’s see what the West would look like in 2014:
Division B no.1 CHI (62) vs Wild Card no.2 PHX (40)
Division A no.1 ANA (57) vs Wild Card no.1 SJS (47)
Division A no.2 VAN (48) vs Division A no.3 LAK (48)
Division B no.2 MIN (46) vs Division B no.3 STL (44)
Again, only one team changes in the new format – Detroit is now in the East, so Phoenix replaces them as the final playoff seed. All four match-ups would change next year: Instead of facing the nearby Red Wings in the first round, Chicago’s reward for finishing at the top of the conference is a trip to Glendale, Arizona to face the Coyotes. Anaheim takes on the surging Sharks, rather than the Blues, Vancouver gets LA instead of Minnesota and the Wild face off against St. Louis.
Chicago’s situation suggests the need for a significant tweak to the new playoff format: By finishing atop the West, the ‘Hawks are forced to battle a first round opponent two time zones and a 3.5-hour plane ride away, while lower-seeded divisional rivals Minnesota and St. Louis have just a 1.5-hour flight within the same time zone. To adequately reward first place finishers, I propose the following change to the new playoff format:
The two division winners in each conference have the option of facing either of the wild cards OR the 2nd or 3rd seeds in their division (division winner with the most points picks first). If a division winner chooses to play number 2 or 3 within their division, then the odd team out plays one of the wild cards.
Let’s say Chicago chooses to avoid the extended travel to Glendale and selects St. Louis as their first round opponent. Anaheim would (most likely) then choose to play Phoenix first, rather than the Sharks. Division B no.2 seed Minnesota would then be matched up with wild card no.1 San Jose. With this rule change, teams are truly rewarded for winning their respective divisions…provided they choose wisely. The decision, or as it would quickly come to be known among hockey fans and pundits, “THE DECISION” would add a whole new level of strategy, intrigue and discussion to the NHL. Just when you thought the Stanley Cup Playoffs couldn’t get any better…