The NHL’s heart may have been in the right place when it decided to change the playoff format in an effort to get more division rivals to match up against each other in the postseason. But its head is in a place only the most experienced yogi would be able to put it.
Since the 2013-14 season, the top three teams in each division — Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, Pacific — each earn automatic postseason berths, while the final spots in each conference are given to two wild-card teams based on point totals. The division winners face the wild cards, while the teams that finish second in their division battle the team that finishes right behind them.
The format was meant to produce more rivalries, but this season it’s simply shattering logic because the teams that finish with best records are not being rewarded. Or, to be more direct …
“It’s stupid,” Washington Capitals’ forward Daniel Winnik told reporters on Monday. “It’s the stupidest thing ever.”
Here’s why the current format is, um, less than ideal. The Washington Capitals, the NHL’s top team (47-17-8, 102 points as of Thursday), should have the easiest road to the Stanley Cup final — based on facing the team with the lowest point total in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But considering overtime losses are just losses in the playoffs, looking at the road to the Cup by winning percentage makes more sense. And in that light, the team with the easiest path is the Ottawa Senators, the No. 2 seed from the Atlantic behind the division-leading Canadiens. The Pittsburgh Penguins, the No. 2 team in the Metropolitan division and all of the conference with a 46-17-9 record (101 points), will be forced to play the No. 3 Columbus Blue Jackets (47-18-6, 100 points) in the first round, giving them the toughest path.
Another example that shows the illogical nature of the system: The recent injury to Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a former Vezina trophy winner, could be a blessing in disguise for the Blueshirts. With a record of 45-24-4 and 94 points, the Rangers would normally be in a battle to ensure home ice in the first round as the conference’s No. 4 seed. Instead, it’s all but certain they’ll start the Stanley Cup playoffs with an easier path to the Cup final than the Capitals, despite being a wild-card team.
As part of the last collective bargaining agreement, the NHL and NHLPA have settled on the format through the 2018-19 season, although they could change it earlier if they both agreed to do so. And they should, perhaps using a version of the old system (in which No. 1 plays No. 8, No. 2 plays No. 7, etc.) but using win percentage instead of points. Again, win percentage is a better gauge of team strength, especially when there are no shootout points awarded in the playoffs. Points would be used as the primary tiebreaker.
Under that format, the Capitals and Blue Jackets would have the easiest road to the Cup final, with the Maple Leafs falling to the eight-seed and facing the toughest road because their point total is inflated by 15 overtime losses rather than earned through straight-up wins over their opponent. A system like that would more properly align regular season achievement with a postseason reward.