Skip to content

A decade of NHL's awful playoff format ought to be enough

John Lamparski / Getty Images

The Winnipeg Jets had an excellent regular season. They had 46 regulation wins, more than any team in the National Hockey League. Even with the statistical noise of loser points, the Jets finished with the second-best point total in the Western Conference, at a cool 110.

For this, they were granted a first-round matchup against the 109-point Colorado Avalanche, who carpet-bombed them into oblivion. (Technically a 4-1 series loss.)

The Carolina Hurricanes also had an excellent regular season. They racked up 111 points, had the most regulation wins in the Eastern Conference at 44, and perhaps most impressively, played before sold-out crowds all season in a place that's been a wasteland at various points in its NHL life. Great job, Canes.

For this, even after dusting off the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Hurricanes have been granted a second-round date with the New York Rangers, the only team in the East that finished above them in the regular season.

Welcome, again, to the NHL's incredibly frustrating divisional playoff format. It's one of the dumbest things the league continues to abide by - and this is the same NHL that for years insisted everything was going tickety-boo with the Arizona Coyotes.

Every spring, the divisional format spits out unfair pairings. Fairness is, admittedly, a fuzzy concept in professional sports, but in this case, it refers to the idea that the NHL regular season has meaning beyond simply being an 82-game dress rehearsal for the restart of the playoffs. Teams that perform well over that six-month slog should earn a decided edge in the initial playoff rounds. The NHL even acknowledges this to a point, giving the four division winners first-round matchups against the four wild-card teams. But instead of seeding the conferences one through eight, the second- and third-place teams in each division are paired.

Leaving aside the problematic instances when wild-card teams have more points than playoff teams in weaker divisions, the system really falls apart when one division is decidedly stronger than the other, which happens often. This year's Central has three teams with more points than any team in the Pacific other than the Canucks. The Metropolitan's two top teams, the Rangers and Hurricanes, had more points than any Atlantic team. This is how you end up with the Jets stuck against the Avalanche instead of a softer matchup against the Predators or Kings. The Oilers, six points back of Winnipeg in the West and with seven fewer regulation wins, end up paired with the 99-point Kings and brush them aside without much fuss.

Codie McLachlan / Getty Images

This inequity would be easier to understand if there were some kind of benefit to it. The NHL thinks there is, with commissioner Gary Bettman insisting whenever he's asked about it that the league wants to preserve regional matchups in the early rounds to take advantage of classic rivalries. But that rarely happens. Three of the four divisions are geographically immense, meaning the system is just as likely to result in a pairing of teams that have nothing approaching a regional rivalry.

Edmonton has now played Los Angeles in three straight playoff seasons. They're about 30 hours apart by car, maybe a bit less if you really pin it. The Maple Leafs have been stuck trying to crawl out of the Atlantic Division, hockey's version of the deep and difficult American League East, which often matches them against a Florida-based team that has no rivalry with Toronto unless it involves tourists adding to the lines at Walt Disney World.

There's also the unintended consequence of the divisional playoff format, which is that it sucks the life out of what could be frenzied jockeying for postseason seeding as the regular season draws to a close. If one team jumps out to a big division lead, the next two can know by January that they're likely playoff opponents. Instead of a playoff picture full of uncertainty until the final days of the regular season, most of the pairings become evident weeks earlier.

It's not like any of this is new or unexpected. Other than the blip of the COVID season, this format has been around since 2013-14. Its problems have been evident for a decade. The solution is dead simple: Seed teams one through eight, then reseed after each round. The best regular-season teams get the easiest path. The teams that just sneak through as the 8-seeds have to play tougher opponents as they progress. Don't like it? Don't finish eighth.

Of course, that potential solution has been sitting there for a decade, too. And it's not like it's an alien concept: the NHL has used conference-wide seeding and reseeding before. Despite the flaws of the current system, it just refuses to go back to that format now.

It can be stubborn, this league. But one can hope. It did eventually come around on the Arizona thing, after all.

Scott Stinson is a contributing writer for theScore.

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox