CHL Notebook: What each league’s playoff format says about it

Windsor-Spitfires-goalie-Michael-DiPietro.-(Adrian-Wyld/CP)

Michael DiPietro has been traded from Windsor to Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

That Moose Jaw-Swift Current second-round series is what the WHL wants — injustice-collectors be damned.

Scratch a junior-hockey fan and they’ll probably say the best playoff format is one not used by the league within their geographical base, especially as the home stretch puts the unique formats of the Western, Ontario and Quebec leagues into sharp relief.

That said, the fact each has something distinct is a nice break from the usual lockstep logic that pervades hockey. Each one might also speak to each league’s points of emphasis.

For the WHL, the concept is a highly regionalized social Darwinism. Since the league went to the NHL-style divisional format in 2014–15, this is the first time that the two statistically most dominant teams have been in the same division. The Moose Jaw Warriors (.762 points pct.) have a one-point lead and a game in hand over the Swift Current Broncos (.742) with two weeks left.

The league’s top four scorers – Swift Current’s Glenn Gawdin (CGY) and Aleksi Heponiemi, and Moose Jaw’s Jayden Halbgewachs (SJ) and Brayden Burke – could all be in the same series.

Meantime, the third-place teams in the WHL’s East and U.S. divisions have records that are equal to the leaders, respectively, of the Central and B.C. groupings. It might not seem fair, but almost all rivalries are local, especially in a league that covers a wide geographical expanse across two countries. It is like the WHL is gaming the system somewhat by having the potentially highest-calibre matchups earlier in the playoffs, before fan attention starts to fray once spring weather perks up.

The OHL’s conference-based format reflects a Canadian predilection to put homebody comforts ahead of all else. With less travel — for everyone other than the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, basically — the OHL would seem best disposed to the egalitarian 1-through-16 format. Nevertheless, it persists in sub-dividing into conferences for the post-season, since a fear of the unknown – the inevitable contention that a 1-through-16 format would trigger Ottawa-Saginaw and Flint-Kingston affrays in the first round every spring — always seems to end the argument.

Sault Ste. Marie is so stacked, with its nine NHL draft picks, including 100-point scorer Morgan Frost (PHI), that any discussion of playoff format is academic. But like in the WHL, the top two teams overall will likely hail from the same division, thanks to the Sarnia Sting and OHL points-per-game leader Jordan Kyrou. Once the second season starts, though, the Sting will be treated as essentially a No. 5 playoff seed, which does not make sense.

The Pat Steinberg Show
WHL Report with Beck Malenstyn and Brad Curle
March 02 2018

The beauty of the QMJHL format is that, when the December trading period opens, no team feels encumbered or blocked by the presence of a powerhouse in their division. In a league which has, on the median, the smallest arenas and population base to draw from, it’s necessary to create that sense of possibility. That’s not why the small-market Acadie-Bathurst Titan and NHL prospect Noah Dobson are vying with the big-city Halifax Mooseheads for a division title and a No. 2 seed, but the chance of that happening is amplified.

The Cinderella story hasn’t materialized in the QMJHL playoffs. Six of the league’s last seven champions since the format was introduced also finished first overall. The upshot of that is the QMJHL, in theory, has the comfort of knowing a strong representative is headed to the MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Ultimately, only the strong survive. That each league sets up the playoff maze differently is a small logical inconsistency that’s actually refreshing.

Brown sent message

Kitchener coach Jay McKee put an X through Logan Brown’s name, in advance of the Y-checkmark getting affixed to the Rangers in the OHL standings.

The Rangers (.677 points pct., holding the OHL Western Conference second seed) dropped only one point from three games on the week whilst reducing their magic number for winning the Midwest Division to one. McKee, meantime, spot-welded Brown to the bench for a period of a divisional game against Owen Sound last Friday for being tardy in reporting to the rink. Brown was also rested on Sunday against Guelph, the Rangers’ potential first-round opponent.

It was consistent with putting the process horse before the results cart, to say the least. The Rangers took an overtime loss in the game where Brown’s usage was capped at two periods and they rallied for an overtime win without the 19-year-old centre. McKee also made the move in the wake of another playoff preview, a win against the third-place Sarnia Sting (who have a better record than Kitchener) where Brown had four points.

The Rangers, for reiteration purposes, have a lot staked on making a playoff run since loading up by adding Brown, winger Kole Sherwood (CLB) and defenceman Logan Stanley (WPG), so it’s understandable that there would be a need to issue a reminder about winning habits.

Hague hits jackpot

Nic Hague (VGK), with six games to spare, has achieved a scoring feat that the OHL hasn’t seen since most of its players were infants. After scoring three goals in as many games last week to bring his season total to 32, the six-foot-five Hague became the first defenceman in the OHL to hit the 30-goal mark since 1999–2000. While that’s a sign of an increasingly fluid distinction between forwards and defencemen in how teams attack (and defend), it’s worth shouting out, considering some of the creative defenders — Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty — that have graced the OHL with their puck-moving presences.

As a team, the Steelheads have had a trial stretching to cover for the loss of fellow 19-year-old defender Jacob Moverare (LAK), who needed right knee surgery after being injured at the world junior championship. Whatever the offensive environment with the eighth-place Steelheads, Hague is furnishing some brain candy for the numbers nerds.

Canadian NHL Team Prospect of the Week: Michael DiPietro, G, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

In a counter-intuitive sense, the OHL Western Conference leaders might want to play Windsor in the playoffs. While they might wear down the retooling Spitfires with greater depth, getting past DiPietro will sharpen their mental game. The Vancouver Canucks prospect is polishing his case to be OHL goaltender of the year on a team that can finish no higher than sixth after getting his league-high seventh shutout with a 20-save clean sheet against the Saginaw Spirit.

DiPietro, who is maintaining a 2.74 average and .912 save percentage on a rebuilding team, is also one shutout away from tying the OHL career shutout record of 16. While DiPietro still has another season in the OHL, record-holder Tom McCollum set the standard with Guelph and Brampton across three seasons (2006–09), so DiPietro will need to squeeze out another shutout in the next two weeks to satisfy statistical purists.

Four seasons ago, Alex Nedeljkovic (now a Carolina Hurricanes farmhand) copped OHL top-goalie honours while performing on an eighth-place Plymouth team. Plymouth gave the Guelph Storm a push in the first round, which might have carried over to Guelph winning the OHL championship.

Join Jeff Marek and Sam Cosentino for all the CHL and NHL prospect talk you can handle.

New name to know: Luke Henman, C, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (QMJHL)

Alexis Lafrenière may have the most goals by a 16-year-old in the Quebec League since Sidney Crosby 14 years ago, but a small slice of the spotlight should be shared with the league’s rookie assists leader. That would be the 17-year-old Henman, who, despite being on the slight side at a listed six feet and 148 pounds, is thriving in his supporting role with the league-leading Armada with eight goals and 38 assists for 46 points across 60 games. The rigours of an anticipated long playoff run with the President’s Cup favourites will be a good test of the Cow Bay, N.S., native’s durability, to say the least.

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