With the NHL season halfway over, people are already looking ahead and projecting the playoff matchups. Given how this season has unfolded, the playoffs should be incredibly interesting, at least for the first two rounds.
The Metropolitan Division has been the most dominant division in hockey, and features the two best teams in the league entering Monday’s action. On top of the two best teams, the Metropolitan Division also has four of the top seven teams in the standings. What is the prize for winning this division? A trip through the gauntlet.
The team that finishes atop the Metropolitan division, which will most likely win the President’s Trophy as the best regular season team, will be the top seed for the Metropolitan region of the Stanley Cup Playoffs bracket. While the reward for being the best is nice for the first round, in which you play the second wildcard team from your conference, things quickly get harder from there. You would think the best team in the NHL would have the easiest route to the Stanley Cup Final, just like the top seed has the “easiest” route in every other major sports championship. Unfortunately for that top team, this may not be the case.
Before 2014, playoff teams were re-seeded at the end of every round. The highest seeded team to advance from the conference would play the lowest seed to advance from the same conference. The playoffs were not divided into divisions to ensure that everyone would be equally represented in the conference finals (barring a major upset) and that the best team from the conference would be rewarded with favorable matchups. The old format allowed for the later rounds of the playoffs to be the most competitive, rather than frontloading the quality matchups.
Last spring we saw the same problem with the playoff format that we are poised to have this year. The Central Division was dominant in the west, and the Metropolitan had five of the top seven teams in the east. This made the first two rounds far more exciting than the conference finals or even the Stanley Cup Final. Both the east and west saw the top two teams from the entire conference facing each other for a right to play for the conference final, not for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
If the season ended on Monday morning, the Washington Capitals would be the top seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs and the top seed in the Metropolitan. Their first-round matchup would be against the Philadelphia Flyers, who would have finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division. After that, the winner of the series would go on to play the winner of the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Columbus Blue Jackets for the right to advance to the Eastern Conference final. To put that in perspective, one of the top four teams in the NHL is guaranteed to lose in the first round, and at least two of the top four teams would have to lose before the semi-finals. Having to go through this gauntlet as the best team in the NHL to reach the conference final does not seem like much of a reward for having a great season.
The most favorable playoff positions in the Eastern Conference appear to be the top seed in the Atlantic Division, or the first wildcard team who gets to face the top seed in the Atlantic Division. This matchup would currently be the Montreal Canadiens against the New York Rangers. The winner of this matchup would meet the winner of the Ottawa Senators and the Boston Bruins. The Rangers, who are currently fourth in the Metropolitan Division, have a 30-16-1 record, which is better than both the Bruins and Senators and are only one win back of passing Montreal, who is the top seed in the Atlantic, in the Eastern Conference Standings. The fourth or fifth best team in the conference currently has the easiest route, in terms of quality of opponents, to the Conference Final, which is a lousy way to encourage teams in the Metropolitan to keep winning.
Commissioner Bettman, the problem with the current playoff format is clear. Either the divisions or the playoff format need to change to ensure the best matchups happen in the finals rather than the opening rounds.
Jonathan Dupont is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.