How playoff format will punish NHL’s best division

Calgary scored four quick goals, Vancouver topped Anaheim and the Wild got over the mumps.

No one ever said sports were fair.

For every hard and fast rule, there’s enough grey space to find an objector, someone who wants to see a review.

And in the case of the National Hockey League’s current playoff format, the loudest objectors will be found in the Metropolitan Division, which contains the highest concentration of hockey excellence in 2017. The reigning Stanley Cup champions, the previous two Presidents’ Trophy winners, and the current NHL standings leaders all reside in sports’ toughest division—and they’ll set about eliminating one another quickly due to a seeding scheme that favours geographical rivalries over performance rewards.

“I’m not a big fan of it,” Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby told ESPN heading into the 2016 playoff push, “but what are you going to do? That’s the way it is.

“I don’t like it just because I’d love to see just the top eight teams [in each conference] make it. There are definitely divisional rivalries, but at the same time, there are more teams in each division. That’s the way it’s done, but I prefer the top eight.”

What the Eastern Conference playoff picture looks like today:
(M1) Capitals vs. (WC2) Islanders
(M2) Blue Jackets vs. (M3) Penguins
(A1) Canadiens vs. (WC1) Rangers
(A2) Senators vs. (A3) Bruins

What the playoff picture would look like if seeded 1-8:
(1) Capitals vs. (8) Islanders
(2) Blue Jackets vs. (7) Bruins
(3) Penguins vs. (4) Senators
(4) Rangers vs. (5) Canadiens

Of course, there is the East-West imbalance — 57 per cent of Western Conference teams will make it compared to 50 per cent in the East Conference — but that is already in the process of getting rectified. Vegas, baby.

We’re looking at the East’s divisional disparity, which calls into question the NHL’s bracket-style setup, implemented in 2014. Paradoxically as it is to say, anomalies are getting common. Last spring it was zero Canadian teams in the tournament; this spring it’s shaping up to be the lopsided Eastern Conference brackets.

Consider this: The fourth-best team in the stacked Metropolitan, the New York Rangers, has a better record than the best club in the Atlantic Division, the Montreal Canadiens. This, despite the Habs’ current five-game win streak.

Or this: The top four Metro teams have a combined goal differential of plus-211. The top four in the Atlantic just plus-30. The gap is not insignificant.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who’ll say they like the format the way it is right now, but that’s out of our control,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said recently. “You got to go through the best teams to win the Stanley Cup. That’s the way it is.”

On pace to defend their Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals should draw the conference’s weakest seed. Fair. Survive that, and their second-round matchup will be a beast. They’ll draw an elite club like the Penguins, Jackets or Rangers instead of, say, the Senators or Bruins.

“Washington last year, they were in first by a mile and they had to face us in the second round and were out of it,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury told TribLive.com. “I think the best teams should be facing the worst teams getting in.”

Under a 1-through-8 seeding system, the Canadiens and Senators wouldn’t even land home-ice advantage for their opening series.

The current format not only helps the Atlantic’s relatively mediocre second and third seeds, who draw each other, but should offers a sneaky back-door entrance for the fourth-best Metropolitan team to battle perceptively softer Atlantic foes in Rounds 1 and 2.

The Rangers hold that sweet spot, for now. Could it be used to their advantage, delaying a showdown with a heavy favourite like the Caps or Pens until Round 3?

“We’ll see,” Henrik Lundqvist says. “But, yeah, you look at our division. It’s a really strong division. You can’t overthink it, though. You have to focus on yourself. But there’s no question the three teams ahead of us are having a really strong season and it’s going to be tough for any opponent to go up against them.

“I just know the first round will be a tough one. Right now the focus is just to get in. We’re not in yet. You just try to take it week by week. I know coming down the stretch here, teams are going to be more desperate. Doesn’t matter where you are in the standings, you have to match that desperation in order to win games.”

But if—hypothetically—the Rangers and Penguins have each secured a post-season berth by the time they face each other on April 9 and a loss means a wild-card 1 seed versus a Metro third seed? Are certain stars rested? Something to watch for.

Rangers forward Brandon Pirri doesn’t have time for my shenanigan strategies.

“If you’re going to win the Stanley Cup, you gotta beat the best teams anyways. I don’t think there’s any easy playoff games,” Pirri says.

“You’ve seen 8 seeds go all the way, so it’s not a surprise if there’s so-called upsets. For the fans, it creates more rivalries. That’s what they were trying to do, right? I don’t think it needs to be changed. It’s a good thing. I can tell just from being here, the wars we have with Metro teams… it’s intense. I imagine during the playoffs it’s going to be that much more.”

New York captain Ryan McDonagh agrees.

“You gotta get your points, get in first, and let the sorting out go from there. There’s not much you can discuss,” McDonagh says. “The fans really like [the divisional brackets]. I’ve had some feedback at different events we’ve done with fans in New York. They remember the ones you win and the ones their team loses. It sticks with them a long time.”

Still, Holtby said the format should be something the Players’ Association examines with the league in the summer. (Off-the-wall idea: How about a grand, cross-conference reseeding 1 to 16?) But the topic, reportedly, will not be discussed at this week’s board of governors meetings, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there is “not currently” a desire among owners to revert to the old merit-based ways.

Think back to last spring. The Islanders fell off toward the end of the regular season and, as a wild card, drew the Atlantic’s Florida Panthers rather than the eventual-champ Penguins. The Isles won their first series in eons, and the higher-ranked Rangers ran into a monster.

Purposely or not, fair or not, the system favoured the Metro’s fourth seed. And it might again.

“Once you’re in the other division, you stay in the other division,” Ian Cole told TribLive. “When you have a division as strong as the Metro and another division that’s not as strong, that might be beneficial.”