Thoughts on the NHL’s Playoff Format


There’s been buzz of late about the NHL’s playoff format being broken because so many of the league’s top teams happen to be in the Metropolitan Division, with only one of them able to advance to the Eastern Conference Final (barring a cross-over to the Atlantic Division).

Down Goes Brown wrote about it in his Grab Bag for Vice Sports this week.  Like DGB, I’m no stranger to throwing goofy ideas out there, and this got me thinking, so I figured I’d post my thoughts here.

First off, the problem I see with current playoff format isn’t quite what DGB mentions.  Yeah, the Metropolitan Division is stacked and it’s going to be brutal to get out of it.  Short of going to single table (which I’ll talk about below), there is no getting around that.

The issue I see is with the wild card.  Under the right situations, the fourth-place teams in a conference swap places, opening up the possibility of the New York Rangers switching to the Atlantic Division and blowing through the teams there, while the Boston Bruins get pulled over to the Metropolitan Division to face the Washington Capitals (for example).

Get rid of the wild card.  Make it a true cross-over.  If the fifth-place team in one of the divisions is better than the fourth-place team in the other, then they cross over and bump the fourth-place team.  No swapping fourth-place teams.

Under that scenario, the Rangers are locked in and it’s the fifth-place Islanders battling with the Atlantic’s fourth-place Bruins for a spot (per Hockey Reference’s playoff probabilities report).

Keep in mind that the scenario of five teams from one division and only three from the other can already happen.  Also, this still means only one of four strong teams comes out of the Metro.   With only the fifth-place team able to cross-over, however, I think you’re less-likely to see a powerhouse making that move or a team deliberately dropping into a cross-over spot.

But I said I’d talk about single-table.  DGB writes off single-table for TV reasons.  My idea doesn’t totally solve that but it’s a start.

Abolish the conferences.  Let the top sixteen teams into the playoffs.  Then take the eight westernmost teams and put them in one side of the bracket with the eight easternmost on the other.

Yeah, you might see a season where the best teams are all in California, meaning they have to battle each other earlier.  That’s been going on forever.  Short of true single-table, you’re not going to solve that.

This gives you the top sixteen teams and it’s TV-friendly.  It also gives you the oddity of teams like Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis or Dallas regularly switching brackets, as one year they might be among the western teams while another might see them with the eastern group.

Of course, I don’t expect this idea to actually be implemented, I just think it’s worth discussion.

Worth noting: I love (and have previously suggested) the idea of teams drafting their opponents in the playoffs.  For all the reasons DGB noted, it’ll never happen.

Clark founded the site that would become DetroitHockey.Net in September of 1996 with no idea what it would lead to. He continues to write for the site and executes the site's design and development.

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