The NHL's playoff mess: a handy guide to hockey's latest controversy
With less than a month before the start of the postseason, the NHL has a bit of a mess on its hands. The league’s playoff format has come under fire; one player , and plenty of others are .
So what exactly is the problem? How did we get here? And do the critics have a point? Let’s break out our handy Q&A format to get to the bottom of this.
So what’s the hockey world complaining about now?
Who says we’re complaining? We’re all busy enjoying the very best time of year for hockey fans, as the race to the regular season finish line gives way to the frantic first round of the … OK, fine, we’re complaining. But for once, we have a good reason: the playoff format being completely and irrevocably screwed up.
That sounds bad. What’s the issue?
The current format is a little complicated, probably more so than it needs to be. But basically, the top three teams in each of the league’s four divisions earn a playoff spot. That leaves four slots open, and those are filled by the two best remaining teams in each conference. Those are the wildcards, and they can come from any division.
Once they’re in, those wildcards get the bottom two seeds and face the two division winners; the best division winner gets the worst wildcard team, while the other division winner gets the other wildcard. Meanwhile, the second and third place teams in each division play each other.
That seems… fine?
For the most part, it is. You can get into weird situations where wildcard teams crossover to the wrong division, which is kind of confusing. But generally, the current system works well enough.
Um, just as long as one division in a conference isn’t way better than the other one. Then everything goes to hell.
Let me guess…
This year, the worst-case scenario is playing out in the Eastern Conference, where the best four teams are all in the Metro Division. The Capitals, Blue Jackets and Penguins have the three best records in the entire league right now, and the Rangers aren’t far behind them. All four of those Metro teams are ahead of anyone in the Atlantic, where the Canadiens and Senators are battling for first place.
Wait, did you say “Metro Division”?
Yes, we know it’s a stupid name, let’s not get sidetracked.
OK, that’s all a bit weird and unbalanced, but why is it a problem?
For a few reasons. Let’s say it’s the end of the season and the standings have stayed roughly the same as they are right now. That would mean that of the Capitals, Penguins and Blue Jackets, whichever two teams finished second and third would have to play each other in the opening round. So one of the three very best teams in the league, at least based on the regular season standings, would be guaranteed to be .
That’s not good, but it gets even worse when you look at the fourth-place team, the Rangers. They’d be a wildcard team, which means they’d cross over to face the Atlantic winner. As a wildcard, they’d be the road team, even though they’d have more points than the Canadiens (or Senators or whoever).
It gets worse. Because of how stacked the Metro is, we’d have a situation where finishing fourth in the division and crossing over the Atlantic would give a team a far easier path through the playoffs than finishing second or third and staying put. And conversely, finishing second in the Atlantic would produce a far easier first-round matchup than finishing in top spot.
Think about what that could mean. At this time of year, teams are supposed to be fighting and clawing to win as much as possible. But the playoff format has the incentives all screwed up in the East, and creates the possibility that, for example, the Rangers may take it easy down the stretch because they’d rather be fourth than third. And instead of the Canadiens and Senators going all out down to the wire to win the Atlantic, one team might ease off and decide that finishing second is better. Even worse, maybe both teams do. The whole stretch run could be a mess.
That’s bad in theory, but would NHL teams really try to lose to get a better playoff position?
Maybe not. And obviously, nobody who did would ever admit to it. But we already see bad teams , so good teams doing it for playoff seeding isn’t out of the question. And there have been accusations before, like last year when the Islanders were in a similar (although not as extreme) situation and sure seemed like they .
We’ve even seen hints of it already. The Rangers’ star goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, got hurt a few weeks ago. He reportedly , but the team held him out for a few more days to get extra rest. That’s not tanking, but it’s also not a team that looks like it’s desperately trying to make up ground in the standings.
So why does the NHL have this weird format in the first place?
The current system came into effect in 2014, at the same time that the league switched back to a traditional four-division system after several years of having six. That six-division format had been simpler, with the division winners guaranteed spots and the rest of the playoff spots just going to the conference’s best teams.
But the league wanted more matchups between teams in the same division, because that’s how you build rivalries and hockey rivalries are the best. So the league switched over to a division-based format. And then, because nothing can ever be simple in the , they mixed in wildcards and crossovers rather than just having the top four teams in each division making it.
At the time, the change drew mixed reviews. Some people liked it, but others pointed to the possibility of something like what we’re seeing this year causing problems.
So the NHL used to have a format that everyone liked?
Oh lord no. The league’s playoff format has a long history of being screwed up in some way or another. The league once put six brand new expansion teams , guaranteeing one a trip to the final. In the 80s, when the playoffs were purely division-based, it was common to see a terrible team from a weak division make it while a good team somewhere else was left out. (In 1988, the Maple Leafs got in with 52 points while stayed home.)
Even the previous format still guaranteed the division winners the top three seeds, so occasionally an inferior team ended up with home ice advantage. But we all just kind of accepted it.
Couldn’t the NHL just copy another more successful league, like the NFL?
That’s what’s kind of weird; the NFL has similar imperfections, and if anything it’s even worse, but nobody cares. This year’s playoffs had a 9-7 division winner , and nobody really complained.
But for some reason, this kind of thing is suddenly a major problem in the NHL. That’s partly because this year’s case is so extreme, and no doubt also partly due to it involving big market teams like New York and Montreal instead of someone like the 2002 Hurricanes.
Is there a better way to handle things?
A lot of fans seem to prefer a system where the league just takes the eight best teams from each conference and seeds them based on overall record. That format loses some of the rivalry matchups you get with today’s version, but also eliminates the weirdness we’re seeing this year.
Other fans have gone further, suggesting the league take the best 16 teams overall and seed them that way, regardless of conference. That would be cool, but probably impractical given the travel implications. Still others want to get even more radical, proposing systems where top teams would get to hand-pick their opponents, or where we’d have . And of course, there are some who think the current system is just fine and everyone is overreacting to one outlier season.
So will anything actually change?
This is the NHL, so probably not – this league hates to change anything, even when it’s .
But if it looks like teams are tanking, all bets may be off. That would be the nightmare scenario, the equivalent of the sort of too-obvious-to-ignore debacle that forced the league to change the widely hated crease rules a generation ago after it .
But unless that happens, or if a major media market like New York decides to make this a hill to die on, don’t be surprised if nothing happens. And next year, when the balance of power shifts back to something relatively normal, we’ll all forget about it.
At least until the league adds a 32nd team through expansion and decides it needs a brand-new format now that all the divisions are equal again.
Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll get it right this time.