How NHL playoff picture would look under different formats

Jeff Marek, Doug MacLean, Elliotte Friedman and Brian Burke discuss whether the NHL should expand the playoff format.

Earlier this season there were reports that some NHL owners had an interest in expanding the current playoff format to allow four more teams to get in — two from each conference.

When commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about it by Elliotte Friedman, though, he shot down the idea.

“It’s not getting widespread support,” Bettman told Friedman on the 31 Thoughts podcast. “There is no proposal. You’re making it sound like there’s this movement out there to do that. There isn’t.”

If anything were to happen, it may have to wait until the 32nd franchise from Seattle arrives, but even that’s not clear. If 20 of 32 teams are admitted to the post-season that means 62.5 per cent of the league would get in, which would be the highest percentage of all the major North American sports. To some, the integrity of the regular season would then come into question.

There is no indication the NHL wants to change its playoff format at all, but it’s still fun to explore what the landscape would look like in these scenarios. So, we looked at three different options using the NHL standings as of Jan. 16.

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Adding two more wild-card teams to each conference and a “play-in” round. The seventh seed would play the 10th seed and the eighth would play the ninth in a best-of-three series where the higher-ranked team hosts every game. The winner would advance to the “first round” of the playoffs, and the rest of it would unfold as it does now.

Atlantic Division Points GP Metro Division Points GP
Tampa Bay 74 47 Columbus 59 46
Toronto 58 45 Washington 59 46
Boston 57 46 NY Islanders 56 45
EC Wild Cards Points GP   First 4 Out Points GP
Montreal 57 48   NY Rangers 45 46
Pittsburgh 56 46   New Jersey 43 46
Buffalo 52 46   Detroit 43 48
Carolina 49 46   Florida 42 45

Claiming one of the top three divisional spots would become so much more important in this format to avoid playing two or three extra games and expending that energy. The playoffs are already enough of a slog as it is that those play-in games would really put teams at a disadvantage the rest of the way.

So if you feel confident that Toronto and Boston will make it to the playoffs under the current playoff rules anyway, the play-in scenario would turn up the pressure a bit with Montreal nipping at their heels. Although they have games in hand, can you imagine Toronto slipping out of the top three in the division and playing a best-of-three against Carolina or Buffalo before having to play Tampa Bay or the Metro champion in a best-of-seven?

This set up gives new life to the Rangers, too, who would be just four points out.

Central Division Points GP Pacific Division Points GP
Winnipeg 62 46 Calgary 64 47
Nashville 60 48 San Jose 63 48
Colorado 50 46 Vegas 60 49
WC Wild Cards Points GP   First 4 Out Points GP
Dallas 50 47   Anaheim 47 47
Minnesota 49 46   St. Louis 45 45
Edmonton 47 46   Arizona 43 45
Vancouver 47 47   Chicago 41 48

Looking at this from a Western Conference perspective, it actually hurts the intensity of the race. The inconsistencies experienced by the likes of Dallas, Colorado and Minnesota recently — every one of which has some pressure to get in this season — isn’t so costly here. While they’re the same distance from being out of a playoff spot under these rules, there’d just be one team within two or three points: the free-falling Anaheim Ducks. St. Louis and Arizona have a better shot at nabbing one of the last two spots here, but with the seasons they’ve had, that’d feel a bit undeserved, wouldn’t it?

What impact would this have on the trade deadline? Chicago and Los Angeles might be the only two Western Conference teams you’d feel confident ruling out right now. Edmonton comes off as a less-desperate buyer and Vancouver even becomes a little more intriguing.


If you think admitting 20 of 31 or 32 teams to the playoffs is too much, you’d hate what the NHL did in 1979-80 and 1980-81. With four WHA teams being added, the NHL changed its format to a league-wide 1-16 ranking, with the guarantee that division winners would get in. That meant 16 of 21 teams qualified for the post-season.

First 5 Out Points GP
Minnesota 49 46
Carolina 49 46
Edmonton 47 46
Vancouver 47 47
Anaheim 47 47

The arguments against doing this now have to do with travel and expenses. If you finish first overall, but have to travel across the continent for two or three games in the first round, it’s not much of an advantage. You’d also have a lower frequency of geographical or natural rivalries, which the NHL has been big on developing in recent years.

The benefits of this system are clear: it gives us the best shot to advance the best teams. But even in a 1-16 ranking some pretty good franchises will be put out early. Just look at some of these potential epic first-round series:

Vegas vs. Montreal: Max Pacioretty revenge series anyone?
Winnipeg vs. Pittsburgh: Winnipeg goes from lining up against Dallas in the current system to facing Crosby and company.
Washington vs. Toronto: A rematch of the 2017 series. Toronto just can’t escape difficult first-round matchups.


Another look back at how things used to be. We’ll guarantee division winners a spot in the playoffs, but not the top two spots just to make it a little more interesting. The playoff races don’t change much from the current ones here because the bottom looks the same. But how do the matchups lineup today?

EC Top 8 Points GP WC Top 8 Points GP
Tampa Bay 74 47 Calgary 64 47
Columbus 59 46 San Jose 63 48
Washington 59 46 Winnipeg 62 46
Toronto 58 45 Nashville 60 48
Boston 57 46 Vegas 60 49
Montreal 57 48 Colorado 50 46
NY Islanders 56 45 Dallas 50 47
Pittsburgh 56 46 Minnesota 49 46

There isn’t a lot of change here, other than it’d be possible the top three Pacific teams — all of which are on fire right now — could get into Round 2. Under the current rules, one of them is guaranteed to be eliminated in Round 1. Even still, with five high-end teams in the conference, there’s no avoiding someone being booted out early.

Montreal and the Islanders switch, with the Habs avoiding the top team in the Metro (currently Columbus) and getting the third seed instead (which would be Washington). Toronto still gets Boston.

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