The NHL post-season is here, and with it comes the annual calls to abandon a format that players like Daniel Winnik have called “the stupidest thing ever.”
The current format, first implemented in 2014, sees the top three teams from each division qualify for the post-season along with two wild cards from each conference.
While the intent of the format was to create more intense playoff rivalries by breeding contempt through greater familiarity, it has actually led to an imbalanced system that has no shortage of detractors. Winnik didn’t mince words when he expressed his frustration last year, but criticism has been mounting among many who cite a disadvantage for top teams from a stacked division. In 2017, Washington and Pittsburgh, the NHL’s top two clubs, faced off in the second round. While they were inevitably on a collision course, many lamented the fact that the two teams met so early in the post-season, a scenario that appears to be shaping up for the top teams in this year’s Atlantic.
Although the current format is still on the books until 2019, that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to alternatives. Ideally, the NHL would return to the system it had in place from 1994 to 2013, where teams were ranked from 1-8 within their respective conferences and re-seeded as the post-season unfolded. But if the league really wanted to shake things up, it would return to a bygone era of unrestrained mismatches and unfamiliar opponents. For a fleeting two-year period from 1980 to 1981, the NHL had one of the most unruly and entertaining playoff systems ever.
Following the NHL’s absorption of the World Hockey Association’s Whalers, Jets, Oilers and Nordiques in 1979, the league charted a new course for its 21 clubs. Major changes included new divisional alignments, a balanced schedule and a significant increase in the number of playoff teams from 12 to 16 — leaving just five cellar dwellars out of the post-season each year.
But the playoff-format tweaks didn’t end there.
In the past, each divisional winner received a bye to the second round. For the 1980 post-season, however, the NHL bid farewell to the byes and introduced a 16-team tournament that pitted the top teams against the worst by ranking them from one to 16. As a result, the Flyers, who had amassed 116 points as the Clarence Campbell regular-season champions, encountered the lowly 16th-place Oilers, who had picked up 69 points in their inaugural NHL season.
The new format ruffled some feathers among many who believed the first round would be a wash, and the critics were proven right as there were no upsets in the preliminary round in 1980. But as the post-season progressed, lesser squads like the North Stars knocked off the defending-champion Canadiens, while the Islanders, who finished the regular season with 19 fewer points than Buffalo, defeated the Sabres in the semifinal to advance to the Final, where they captured their first Stanley Cup.
Criticism of the playoff structure became more pronounced the following season. In December 1980, Globe and Mail columnist Allen Abel wrote, “What credibility can an enterprise have that, after six months of agony, rewards all but five of its most pathetic losers?”
Later in the year, Tom Barnridge of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch launched into an ink-soaked tirade after the Blues were dismissed by the 13th-place Rangers in the second round of the 1981 post-season.
“It is positively, absolutely, incredibly inane to conduct the NHL playoffs with 16 of the league’s 21 teams,” he wrote.
Abel and Barnridge weren’t alone in their criticisms. Al Morganti echoed their concerns in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981 when he likened the NHL post-season to a bargain basement.
“Making the playoffs in this league is like getting your name in the phone book — you have to ask NOT to be included,” he wrote.
Despite the outcry, the 1981 playoffs produced plenty of excitement. Heading into the post-season that year, most had written off the 14th-seeded Oilers as they prepared to take on the third-place Canadiens. Although Edmonton had Wayne Gretzky, who was coming off a 164-point campaign, some believed the team was too one dimensional and would be no match for Montreal. What they didn’t account for was the Oilers’ fourth-string goaltender, Andy Moog.
After just seven regular-season appearances, Moog went into the playoffs with low expectations. But after turning aside all but three shots in the first game, Moog turned white hot in the second contest, stopping 40 of 41 shots as the Oilers defeated the Canadiens to take a stranglehold on the best-of-five series. Bolstered by a four-point performance from Gretzky in the third game, Moog and the Oilers completed the stunning upset over the Canadiens. It was the first time since 1952 that Montreal had been swept in a playoff series.
Meanwhile, the North Stars pulled off some magic of their own. Since entering the league in 1967–68, Minnesota had never earned a victory in Boston, going 0-26-7 at the Garden. As a result, to advance past the Bruins in their first-round series the North Stars would have to do something the franchise had never accomplished before. After pushing the Bruins to overtime in the first game in Boston, Minnesota’s Steve Payne made history less than four minutes into the extra frame. The North Stars took the next game in Boston as well, before returning home to complete the sweep.
Although the 1981 post-season produced plenty of dramatic storylines, the format was already on its way out. During a meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., the previous December, the NHL ushered in sweeping changes that would take effect in 1981–82 — among them were realignment and the scrapping of the wild playoff format.
The decision was so popular that then-Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard called the gathering the “first National League meeting I’ve ever been at that there wasn’t somebody wanting to chop the other guy’s head off.”
So the 1980–81 playoff format didn’t last. But how would it look if it was brought back in 2018?
Today, in an era of unparalleled parity, the gulf between the Presidents’ Trophy-winning club and the 16th-seeded team in an opening-round matchup wouldn’t be as wide as the point totals in the standings suggest. As a result, having the NHL’s top team take on the 16th-ranked team isn’t as outlandish as it would have been in 1980. Moreover, the 1980–81 formula also would ensure that strong teams from loaded divisions aren’t penalized by having to play each other in the preliminary rounds.
The major drawback, however, would undoubtedly be travel. Breaking the top 16 teams out of their conferences would significantly increase the number of miles covered throughout the post-season, especially in the early rounds when most clubs can currently expect to stay confined within a tight geographic area.
To mitigate that issue, like the original scheme in the early 1980s, teams could play best-of-five series in the opening round. Also, if you used the 3-2 format — as opposed to a 2-2-1 — it would provide the higher-seeded team with home-ice advantage and reduce travel.
But what about the actual matchups?
If the league had used the 1980–81 system for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the post-season would have had a very different look. For starters, instead of squaring off against Pittsburgh in the opening round, Washington would have hosted Nashville in the preliminary round; a scenario that could have completed altered the makeup of the eventual Stanley Cup Final. While the Predators would have taken the Maple Leafs’ spot in a first-round matchup against the Capitals, Toronto would have taken on the Blackhawks in a tilt that would have been reminiscent of when the Buds were still in the Western Conference.
Would Chicago have been limited to just three goals in a throwback series with Toronto? It’s impossible to say, but with the gift of hindsight, it’s a matchup that Maple Leafs fans might have preferred. Elsewhere, with the exception of an Anaheim-San Jose matchup, the other series would have been largely unfamiliar territory as well. It would have been the first playoff series for the Penguins and Flames, and the Canadiens and Blues would have met in the post-season for the first time in 40 years.
This year, the unwieldy format would have created a number of different scenarios that would have flipped the post-season on its head.
For starters, the Avalanche wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Despite beating the Blues in a play-in game to secure the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, Colorado would have lost its grip on the post-season after the Panthers defeated the Bruins in the final regular-season game. With Florida clawing their way to 96 points, they would have edged out the Avalanche by a single point to claim the 16th spot and take on the President’s Trophy–winning Predators.
After failing to pry the Atlantic Division from the Lightning, the Bruins would be slated to take on the Flyers, conjuring up memories of when Philadelphia reverse-swept Boston in the Eastern Conference semis in 2010. The Bruins, however, got them back the following year, sweeping the Flyers on their way to the championship.
Meanwhile, the Jets, back in the playoffs for the first time in three years, would take on the Devils, who are making their first post-season appearance since advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.
Elsewhere, instead of opening their post-season against the Bruins, the Maple Leafs would actually start the post-season against the defending Stanley Cup champions. It would be the first post-season meeting between Toronto and Pittsburgh since 1999, when the Maple Leafs defeated the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Familiar foes would also be on display in a first-round matchup between Minnesota and Anaheim. Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau would take on his former team, and the storyline would be too perfect if that series went to seven games.
Although the 1980–81 format would produce plenty of unique matchups in today’s playoffs, it would also yield some meetings that we’re already going to see this post-season — the Golden Knights would still take on the Kings.
To be sure, reviving this antiquated format for today’s NHL is largely wishful thinking, but for now we can always dream.
2017 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS FIRST ROUND: ALTERNATE FORMAT
2018 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS FIRST ROUND: ALTERNATE FORMAT