A Closer Look at the NHL Playoff Format

img_0682While it’s just past Christmas, there is already talk of who’s in and out of the playoffs. By this point, it’s clear which teams will be in prime position to make a cup run, and which ones are already out of contention. Currently, the Capitals are fighting (no, not that way) with the Flyers for the wild card spots. 

More of a visual learner? Here’s what this looks like (we’ll focus on the Eastern Conference only since that’s the Caps division):


Look confusing? You’re not alone. The only obvious matchups are that Montreal and Columbus, who are leading their respective divisions, play a wild card team. After that, it gets weird. Why is Montreal seeded higher than both Pittsburgh and New York when they have fewer points? Dave Lozo of Vice Sports explains: “The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2013-14 season…changing a playoff format everyone seemed to have enjoyed. Instead of going with the traditional 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5 matchups that included re-seeding, the league installed a clunky, confusing format that simultaneously emphasizes divisional matchups and throws them out the window depending on the standings. The new wild-card setup allowed for a team in one division to cross over to another division and play its first two rounds there, which defeats the league’s stated purpose of going from six to four divisions in the first place.” If this is still super confusing, Wikipedia has you covered.

If you’re the Capitals, you love this format if all stays the same. They’d be seeded in the Atlantic Division bracket due to the weird crossover rule, and if they got past the Canadiens they’d play the Bruins or Senators in round 2. If that isn’t a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what is.

But Lozo is right in that the current system is both stupid and unfair, even if it would massively benefit a Capitals team that can’t seem to make it past the 2nd round. So it got me thinking: is there a seeding system that makes perfect sense?

The short answer is yes, and the NHL would hate it since it disposes of rivalries and divisions altogether. However, it would create the correct seeding format that fans crave, and also give preference to unusually strong divisions. This year, the Metro is that division, and the playoffs shouldn’t cede spots to a division that is mediocre at best. Here is what the seeding would be if it were merely point based and divisions did not exist (AKA the old system):


The Caps would still play Montreal in the first round, and for those who absolutely need rivalries, the Rangers would play the Flyers. That said, if Washington beat the Canadiens, their road to the Stanley Cup would be much harder; assuming all the higher seeded teams won, the Caps would reseed and play the Blue Jackets, and that’s no easy task. However, in terms of fairness, this accomplishes the seeding and results that accurately reflect the trends of the Eastern Conference.

Should the NHL change its playoff formats? Should they keep the inter-division rivalries (and have the Caps probably never get past the 2nd round)? What are your suggestions for the impending playoff madness?

By Julia Karron

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1 Response to A Closer Look at the NHL Playoff Format

  1. Diane Doyle says:

    As a rule, the “old” system was generally fairer, except for the division leaders each got an automatic berth. If they had kept the old format and moved Winnipeg to the West (as they already did), they might have moved Philly to the “South East”. (Only other possible alternative to move to “South East” would be Columbus but I feel they geographically belong in division with Pittsburgh. And instead we’d hear the outcry of “Why are the Caps who are leading the crummy South East seeded ahead of Pittburgh and New York Rangers who are ‘better’ teams. Now, if it were a straight seeding (1 though 8) that still did conferences but did away with divisions entirely.

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