Every time that a St. Louis sports team makes the playoffs it seems like I’ve got something to complain about. And somehow it’s always because we end up playing a team from Chicago too early in the playoffs. In the fall, I talked about MLB’s problem with playoffs because the three best teams in the regular season knocked each other out in the first round, but today I want to complain about the NHL’s revamped playoff system.
The problem I think exists with the playoff format in the NHL is very similar to Major League Baseball’s. A couple of years ago, after they lowered the number of divisions from six to four, the National Hockey League changed the format of the playoffs as well in order to have teams in the same division play each other more often. Their reasoning is fair; with the new format there is a bump in popularity for the first round because you see more rivalries, which adds a lot of intensity to the beginning of the playoffs.
However, this means that teams that finish second in their division, regardless of record, will play the third best team in their division, again regardless of their record. So in a very similar situation, the St. Louis Blues who finished as the third-best team in the regular season, are playing the Chicago Blackhawks, who were the fourth-best team in hockey. While this sets up an exciting series because the Blues and Blackhawks hate each other, it is counter-intuitive to how seeding should work. In the current format with the way the competitive balance lies in the NHL right now, the teams who do well in the regular season are being punished by having to play stronger teams than those who finished with a worse record in the regular season.
The NHL isn’t wrong, the first round of the playoffs is more exciting now. This is perhaps perfectly shown with the budding rivalry between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning who participated in good ‘ol-fashioned hockey brawl on Friday night that left more than one participant bloodied. But part of the allure of hockey is that the playoffs is a whole new season from the regular season, and the game of hockey is perfectly suited to make any playoff match-up exciting. The intensity and speed of the game means that it wasn’t uncommon in the old format for an eight-seed “upset” over the one-seed. That’s why their argument for trying to make the playoffs more exciting doesn’t really stand up.
The argument could be made that over time the league will become more balanced and the new system will work. The counterpoint exists though and if there is ever one division that is stronger across the board, all the teams in that division will suffer for it because they will have to play themselves instead of earning a match-up with a weaker playoff team. That should not be something that happens.
While the old format might not have been a whole lot better, it allowed for more “fair” match-ups. The three division winners in each conference got the first three seeds and the remaining five playoff teams were seeded by points in the season, not what division they play in. This format hurt the weaker divisions because if it was a bad division they might only have one team make the playoffs, but that isn’t a problem because the playoffs shouldn’t be used to try and get more teams to be able to play. They should only be used for the best teams in each conference to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The National Basketball Association has the best format in my opinion and I think the NHL should follow in their footsteps. In the NBA the eight best teams in each division make the playoffs and are seeded by overall record. The division winners make the playoffs but don’t get the top three seeds by default. I believe that their format is the best way to reward teams for playing well throughout the year, and will avoid any and all situations where two of the stronger teams are knocking each other out in the first round of the playoffs. The Blues–Blackhawks match-up could easily have been a Western Conference Finals series, but instead one of them will have to go home after the first week. Something needs to change.