The NHL playoffs are one of the most fun and exciting postseasons to watch. I’m not kidding as even a casual fan or someone just casually browsing through channels to watch a sporting event would love it. Every game is intense, heart pounding, gut wrenching, and nerve racking as it can get. They epitomize the best in sports as every game is fun to watch. However, there is one thing that those watchers know: the system is unfair.
A few years ago, the league had to deal with realignment due to Winnipeg getting a team. There were some tough choices like moving the Detroit Red Wings to the Eastern Conference, but it almost seemed fair as to where each team had to play (and honestly, in terms of logistics not tradition, which I will get into later, it was fair). However, there was one problem: how the playoffs were set up.
Each conference has two divisions and the top three teams in terms of points of each division clinch playoff spots and the next best two teams from the conference in overall position clinch the wild card spots. So theoretically, five teams from one division could go to the playoffs. When the playoffs begin, it becomes a bracket of division playoffs then on to the conference championship (then whoever wins that is obviously conference champions before going to the Stanley Cup Finals). Sounds confusing right? Well, it is. Honestly, I don’t even know how they work things out in terms of seeding, where the wild card teams go, and what the seeding is in terms of divisions. Even me trying to describe the playoffs is confusing.
To give you an idea of how it works, lets use the Eastern Conference as an example. On one side of that bracket, the one seed from the Metropolitan division takes on one of the wild cards, while the two and three seeds from the Metropolitan division face each other. The winner of those matchups meet in the next round. On the other side of that bracket, it’s the same deal as the one seed from the Atlantic division plays one of the wild cards and the two and three seeds of the Atlantic division face each other. So, the winner of Metropolitan division side plays the winner of the Atlantic division side for the conference championship. There are more complications than that, but essentially as you can see, it’s flawed.
Flawed? Yeah, it’s flawed and flawed to the point that it’s unfair. Prime example of this unfairness is the Pittsburgh Penguins. I am not a fan of the Penguins as I actually despise them, but even in my dislike for the team, they were slighted in the playoffs. While they proved how good of a team they were last year as they won the Stanley Cup, they did not deserve to have the matchups they had in the first two rounds of the playoffs than they had in the conference finals. The Penguins had to face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and the Washington Capitals in round two (Capitals being not only the best team in the division, but in the league and conference and the Blue Jackets having the three seed, but were also the third best team in the conference). The Penguins should be facing the Blue Jackets in the second round and the Capitals in the conference finals if we are talking about fairness. And if we are talking about fairness, the Blue Jackets and Capitals should not be eliminated in the first and second rounds respectively due to their matchup with the Penguins in the playoffs.
So, how should it be changed? If they are going to keep divisions, they should seed the teams by points earned. The Penguins would have been the two seed in last year’s playoffs. However, if I were commissioner, I would change everything as I would even change the regular season. I would eliminate divisions, had 16 teams per conference, have each team play each other in the conference five times (with each team alternating who has home ice advantage every season) and have the final seven games played against seven selected opponents in the opposite conference. So when playing in the playoffs, the one through eight seeds will be ordered correctly.
What we have now is an unfair playoff system despite how interesting it is. What happened the last two seasons, including last year is utterly ridiculous and unfair. The New York Rangers were the fourth best team in the Eastern Conference, but yet they got what was essentially the seven seed. Plus, how the seeding works in the playoffs is confusing as all get out. Simplifying makes it easier and two of the propositions I suggested makes it simple for seeding. If Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, can make these changes, the sport would be better. Heck, before realignment, the playoffs were fair as all get out. But now, they need to make the sport better again. Dare I say “Make Hockey Great Again?”