Current NHL playoff format creating season-long rivalries

Brad Marchand spoke about toning down his role as an agitator on the ice, saying the way the league has changed means he’s had to adapt his game. Also, it’s just too tiring.

WINNIPEG — Ask Brad Marchand about meeting the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and he’ll pump the brakes on you.

“That matchup isn’t set in stone by any means,” cautions the Boston Bruins winger, always the picture of pragmatism. “You’re getting a little ahead of yourself here.”

Realistically, with the Bruins trailing Atlantic Division-leading Tampa by 17 points, followed closely by Toronto — which has an eight-point bulge on fourth-place Montreal — a Boston-Toronto Round 1 is not only a lock.

It is, in fact, the only first-round series across the National Hockey League that is as good as set in stone. So, going on that assumption, we asked Marchand what he thinks about the fact Toronto and Boston will meet in a playoff series for the third time in the past seven post-seasons.

“I don’t think it’s fair that … one team would finish second (in the NHL) and have to play a third or fourth place team, compared to a seventh-place team,” he said. (Boston is currently the fourth-ranked team in the NHL, while Toronto is fifth). “But, if you’re going to get to a Stanley Cup you’ve got to get through your whole Conference anyway.”

The debate is clear-cut: Do you prefer the “one versus eight, two versus seven” system that the league abandoned in 2014? Or is the newer, Division-based system — that has pitted Boston and Toronto against each other twice in six springs — preferable?

“(Playoffs are) where the rivalries are built,” he said. “If you’re excited about Toronto, it’s because we’ve played them a few years in the playoffs, and there have been some exciting finishes.

“I don’t think we’re looking forward to playing the Leafs any more than any other team in the East. It’s just another team.”

Now, this is a player who dipped into Leafs Nation with a couple of complimentary tweets about Mitch Marner recently. He knows the Leafs and Bruins are on a collision course, but with the Bruins trying to right the ship tonight in Winnipeg, it just wasn’t the time for Marchand to rock that boat about a series that is almost a month away.

The debate about the two playoff formats, however, is a pertinent one here in Winnipeg, where last season the No. 1 team in the NHL (Nashville) met up with the No. 2 Jets in the second round.

“It was a hell of a series,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Nobody in Nashville or Winnipeg got cheated, if you bought tickets.”

Hockey people, almost to the man, will tell you that a team that earns a high placing over the 82-game grind of a regular season deserves to face a lesser opponent in Round 1. There should be a tangible reward for regular-season success, and meeting Toronto, then No. 1 Tampa, does not amount to any kind of reward for the Bruins.

But, consider the entertainment side.

“The first argument is, go one through eight, and the better teams have a better chance. The series are shorter,” said Maurice. “Do it the other way and you get some heavy match-ups — in that second round especially — and it’s going to increase the number of games.

“If I’m a hockey fan, I want to turn on the TV every night and have a bunch of hockey games on,” the Jets coach said. “We are here to put an exciting product in the ice for two straight months. So if the argument is, that’s the most exciting product? Then that’s absolutely the way it should be.”

The theory that the Divisional format produces more first-round gates, and thus, more Hockey Related Revenues for the league and the players, sounds logical. However, it does not bear out under scrutiny.

Between 1994 and 2013, in the old 1 vs. 8 system, the average first-round series lasted 5.78 games.

1994-2013 Conference quarter-finals

YEAR # OF GAMES # OF SERIES AVG SERIES LENGTH
1994 48 8 6
1995 49 8 6.13
1996 45 8 5.63
1997 48 8 6
1998 46 8 5.75
1999 44 8 5.5
2000 41 8 5.13
2001 44 8 5.5
2002 47 8 5.88
2003 47 8 5.88
2004 47 8 5.88
2006 44 8 5.5
2007 43 8 5.38
2008 48 8 6
2009 44 8 5.5
2010 49 8 6.13
2011 49 8 6.13
2012 48 8 6
2013 47 8 5.88
TOTAL 878 152 5.78

In the six post-seasons since they switched to the Divisional format, the average first-round series was marginally shorter at just 5.68 games.

2014-2018 First Round series

YEAR # OF GAMES # OF SERIES AVG SERIES LENGTH
2014 48 8 6
2015 47 8 5.88
2016 47 8 5.88
2017 42 8 5.25
2018 43 8 5.38
TOTAL 227 40 5.68

So, there are no extra gates to be had, as Maurice’s theory proposes. But, what about the theory that, when two teams meet in a playoff series, the rivalry that gets built makes their four or five meetings the following season more entertaining?

“We took eight straight penalties in Nashville in our first game there (this season),” said Maurice. “The two teams both showed up for a street fight. The referees thought they were going to keep it nice? It wasn’t a nice game.

“That’s happened in our Minnesota games, and in our Vegas games we’ve played pretty strong,” he said of last year’s playoff opponents. “For sure, there’s way more in the (games the) next season, after a playoff series.”

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Boston goalie Tuukka Rask doesn’t necessarily agree, however.

“I think those days are gone. It’s not going to be like Boston-Montreal,” Rask said. “The game has changed, I’s not as heavy a game, not as many fights and dirty tricks like there used to be. It’s a skill game now, and the best skilled team is going to win.”

It’s a debate that won’t end soon. And one that will produce much howling, if the Maple Leafs get dispatched by Boston in Round 1.

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