NHL playoff format history: Pros and cons of all 26 tweaks

President of Sportsnet, Scott Moore joins the HC at Noon panel to plug the SN Café in Brampton and discuss the crazy excitement in the Canadian air as NHL playoffs are almost here.

You know what they say.

Don’t like the “stupid” NHL playoff format? Just give it time. It’ll change.

Hockey’s current bracket-style wild-card format has been subject to criticism this spring because of a lopsided Eastern Conference. One of the league’s three superpowers — Washington, Columbus or Pittsburgh — will be eliminated in the first round of the 2017 post-season because they all play in the stacked Metropolitan Division.

“We do have a situation where three of our top teams are in one division,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly acknowledged on Sirius XM this week.

“People think that might be unfair and a different system might be better.”

Daly expected at least one manager to bring up the topic of playoff format at the most recent GM meetings. Not one did.

“The managers like divisional playoffs,” Daly said.

They generate fan interest, rivalries and attendance.

We looked back — all the way back — at the NHL’s playoff format. That the league has tweaked or overhauled its post-season structure 26 times in the last century proves no system is perfect (some are hilariously bad, actually) and that there is bound to be another modification in the future.

“We’ll see how this plays out,” Daly said, “and see whether this unique season happens on a more frequent basis and whether the playoff format needs to be revisited.”

Here is a thorough history of the NHL’s playoff formats and the pros and cons of each new twist.


1917-18: The NHL’s inaugural regular season was split in two halves. The winners of each half faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL championship and the right to meet the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion in a best-of-five for the Stanley Cup.

Second-half winner Toronto Hockey Club defeated first-half winner Montreal Canadiens by virtue of total goals (they each won one game) for the O’Brien Cup, then went on to defeat the Vancouver Millionaires in five games for Stanley.

Format pro: A fresh start midway through the season. Encourages running up the score.
Format con: Playoff games can end in a tie. What happens if first-half and second-half winner is the same team?

1918-19: Same as 1917-18, except the NHL final was extended to a best-of-seven series.

Toronto, one of just three NHL teams, suspended operations, ending the season early. Montreal defeated Ottawa, but the Canadiens’ series versus the Seattle Metropolitans ended in a 2-2-1 draw due to an influenza epidemic.

Format pro: More playoff games.
Format con: No Stanley Cup champion.

1919-20: Same as 1917-1918, except Ottawa won both halves of the regular-season schedule and thus earned an automatic berth into the best-of-five Stanley Cup Final against Seattle, the PCHA champion.

Format pro: Clearly rewards the best regular-season team.
Format con: Completely eliminates an NHL championship series.

1921-22: Top two regular-season teams faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL crown. The NHL champ battled the winner of the PCHA–Western Canada Hockey League in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Final.

Format pro: Rewards sustained performance over the duration of the full 24-game regular-season grind.
Format con: After taking Game 1 of the NHL championship from the Senators 5-4, the Toronto St. Patricks just iced the puck all Game 2 and advanced by virtue of a 0-0 tie.

1922-23: Top two regular-season teams faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL championship. The NHL champ moved on to play the PCHA champion in the best-of-three Stanley Cup semifinal. The winner of the semifinal played the WCHL champion, which had been given a bye, in a best-of-three Stanley Cup Final.

Format pros: Expanded to three rounds, all won by the Ottawa Senators
Format cons: The WCHL champion, in this case the Edmonton Eskimos (no CFL), gets a free pass to the Cup final.

1923-24: Top two regular-season teams faced each other in a two-game, total-goals series for the NHL championship. The NHL champion moved on to play the loser of the PCHA-WCHL playoff (the winner of the PCHA-WCHL playoff earned a bye into the Stanley Cup Final) in a best-of-three Stanley Cup semifinal. The winner of this series met the PCHA-WCHL playoff winner in a best-of-three Stanley Cup Final.

Format pro: The Montreal Canadiens — clearly the best team, going 6-0 in three playoff series — won the Cup.
Format con: The final game for the Stanley Cup, between Montreal and Calgary, was held at neutral site Ottawa due to slushy ice at Mont Royal Arena.

1924-25: The first-place team (Hamilton) at the end of the regular-season was scheduled to play the winner of a two-game, total-goals series between the second-place (Toronto) and third-place (Montreal) clubs.

Hamilton refused to adhere to this new format, demanding greater compensation than offered by the NHL. So Toronto and Montreal played a two-game, total-goals series, and the winner (Montreal) earned the NHL title and then played WCHL champion Victoria in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Final.

Format pro: Controversy sells.
Format con: The Hamilton Tigers, the NHL’s best team, were suspended over a financial dispute. Non-NHL Victoria won the Cup.

1925-26: The intended 1924-25 format took effect after the league put the hammer down on the Tigers. The winner of the two-game, total-goals series between the second- and third-place teams squared off against the first-place team in a two-game, total-goals NHL championship. The NHL champ moved on to play the Western Hockey League winner in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Final.

Format pro: The Montreal Maroons had to survive a whopping eight games to win the Cup.
Format con: Still had playoff games ending in ties.

1926-27: The 10-team NHL, now divided into two divisions (Canadian and American), is the only major pro league to survive and thus takes over sole control of the Stanley Cup.

In each division, the winner of the two-game, total-goals series between the second and third seeds faced the first-place team in a two-game, total-goals series for the division crown. The division title winners met in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Final.

Format pro: Ensured national champions in U.S. and Canada. Proper bracket-style format takes shape. Rewards regular-season winners with a first-round bye.
Format con: 1926-27 Cup final featured two ties, as Ottawa defeated Boston 2-0-2.

1928-29: The top seeds in the two divisions played each other in a best-of-five. Both second-place teams in the two divisions played each other in a two-game, total-goals series, as did the two third seeds. The winners of these latter two series then played each other in a best-of-three for the right to meet the winner of the series between the two first-place clubs for a best-of-three Cup Final.

Series A: First in Canadian Division vs. first in American (best of five)
Series B: Second in Canadian Division vs. second in American (two games, total goals)
Series C: Third in Canadian Division vs. third in American (two games, total goals)
Series D: Winner of Series B vs. winner of Series C (best of three)
Series E: Winner of Series A vs. winner of Series D (best of three) for Stanley Cup

Format pro: Introduces crossover between U.S. and Canada and a chance for an all-American or all-Canadian Cup Final.
Format con: Confusing. Guarantees elimination of a top seed after one series. Cup Final has fewer games than Series A.

1931-32: Same as 1928-29, except Series D was changed to a two-game, total-goals format and Series E was switched to best-of-five.

Format pro: Cup Final justly gets bumped to a best-of-five
Format con: In the first year of this format, the Rangers and Maple Leafs had to play Game 2 of the Cup Final in Boston because the circus was in town.

1936-37: Same as 1931-32, except series B, C, and D were each best-of-three.

Format pro: Finally, the total-goals idea goes away, and with it, the elimination of tied playoff games.
Format con: Greater chance for tired legs.

1938-39: The shrinking NHL forgoes a two-division system in favour of one seven-team league. Based on regular-season standings, the playoff seeding was as such:

Series A: 1 vs. 2 (best of seven)
Series B: 3 vs. 4 (best of three)
Series C: 5 vs. 6 (best of three)
Series D: Winner of Series B vs. winner of Series C (best of three)
Series E: Winner of Series A vs. winner of Series D (best of seven)

Format pro: When six of seven teams make the playoffs, fan bases remain interested
Format con: Seeding structure ensures the top two teams meet but definitely not in the final. Guarantees a semifinal berth for the second- or third-worst team in the league.

1942-43: With the NHL reduced to the “Original Six,” only the top four finishers qualified. Best-of-seven semifinals featured 1 vs. 3 and 2 vs. 4 match-ups. The winners met in a best-of-seven Cup Final.

Format pro: A third of the league misses the playoffs, increasing regular-season competition.
Format con: Uh, how about 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 instead?

1967-68: The NHL doubles to 12 teams and creates two six-team divisions, East and West. Top four clubs in each division qualified for the playoffs and all series were best-of-seven. Important note: All of the Original Six were in the East.

Series A: East 1 vs. East 3
Series B: East 2 vs. East 4
Series C: West 1 vs. West 3
Series D: West 2 vs. West 4
Series E: Winner of Series A vs. winner of Series B
Series F: Winner of Series C vs. winner of Series D
Series G: Winner of Series E vs. winner of Series F

Format pro: Made the divisional rounds competitive.
Format con: Heavily rewarded the weak expansion teams, which were swept in the final for three straight, boring years.

1970-71: Same as 1967-68 except that Series E matched the winners of Series A and D, and Series F matched the winners of Series B and C.

Format pro: Cup Final instantly gets more competitive with East-West crossover in the semis.
Format con: Expansion teams realize just how far they lag behind.

1971-72: Same as 1970-71, except Series A and C matched seeds 1 and 4, and Series B and D matched seeds 2 and 3.

Format pro: Finally, the NHL rewards its top seeds with logical first-round opponents.
Format con: Potential for first-round series to be more lopsided.

1974-75: The NHL expands to 18 teams in four divisions (Adams, Norris, Patrick and Smythe), and adopts a completely new playoff format. The 2 and 3 seeds in each of the four divisions were pooled together in the preliminary round. These eight (2 and 3) clubs were ranked 1-8 based on regular-season record.
Series A: 1 vs. 8 (best of three)
Series B: 2 vs. 7 (best of three)
Series C: 3 vs. 6 (best of three)
Series D: 4 vs. 5 (best of three)

Winners of this preliminary round pooled together with the four division winners, which had received byes into this quarter-final round. These eight teams were again ranked 1 to 8 based on regular-season record.
Series E: 1 vs. 8 (best of seven)
Series F: 2 vs. 7 (best of seven)
Series G: 3 vs. 6 (best of seven)
Series H: 4 vs. 5 (best of seven)

The four quarter-final winners advanced to the semifinal and were then ranked 1 to 4 based on regular-season record:
Series I: 1 vs. 4 (best of seven)
Series J: 2 vs. 3 (best of seven)
Series K: Winner of Series I vs. winner of Series J (best of seven)

Format pro: Now we have a serious tournament. Regular-season record has lasting impact.
Format con: Jump from a best-of-three to best-of-seven seems severe.

1977-78: Same as 1974-75, except the preliminary round consisted of the second seed in the four divisions and the next four teams based on regular-season record — not their standings within their divisions.

Format pro: Another victory for those who want the regular season to matter.
Format con: A minor step back for those who value divisional hate.

1979-80: With the addition of four WHA clubs, the NHL expands its playoffs to include 16 of 21 teams. The four top divisional teams automatically earned playoff berths. The top remaining 12 regular-season teams also earned berths. All 16 teams were pooled and ranked 1 to 16 based on record to play best-of-five series.
Series A: 1 vs. 16
Series B: 2 vs. 15
Series C: 3 vs. 14
Series D: 4 vs. 13
Series E: 5 vs. 12
Series F: 6 vs. 11
Series G: 7 vs. 10
Series H: 8 vs. 9

The eight preliminary round winners, ranked 1 to 8 based on regular-season record, advanced to best-of-seven quarter-finals.
Series I: 1 vs. 8
Series J: 2 vs. 7
Series K: 3 vs. 6
Series L: 4 vs. 5

The quarter-final winners, ranked 1 to 4 based on regular-season record, moved to best-of-seven semifinals. The winners of those 1-4, 2-3 match-ups played a best-of-seven championship.

Format pro: Great emphasis on rewarding teams according to regular-season performance. Targets a championship between top two teams.
Format con: Travel. Lack of geographical playoff rivalries.

1981-82: The first four teams in each division earned playoff berths. In each division, the first-place team opposed the fourth-place team and the second-place team opposed the third-place team in a best-of-five division semifinal.

In each division, the two Round 1 winners met in a best-of-seven division final series.

The two winners in each conference met in a best-of-seven conference final series. In the Prince of Wales Conference, the Adams Division winner opposed the Patrick Division winner; in the Clarence Campbell Conference, the Smythe Division winner opposed the Norris Division winner.

The conference winners met in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final.

Format pro: Keeping the match-ups along divisional and conference lines fuels rivalries. Norris becomes Chuck Norris.
Format con: Like today’s format, can result in less payoff for strong regular-season teams in competitive divisions and give weak teams in weak divisions a pass.

1986-87: Division semifinal series upped from best-of-five to best-of-seven.

Format pro: More gate revenue. Greater chance for the superior team to prevail.
Format con: Fatigue.

1993-94: Playoff draw switches to a conference-based system. Top eight teams in each of the Eastern and Western conferences qualify, regardless of divisional standing. Each division’s top seed gains either a 1 or 2 conference seed and is assured home-ice advantage in the first two playoff rounds.

The remaining teams were seeded based on regular-season point totals. Each conference sees 1-8; 2-7; 3-6 and 4-5 match-ups. All series were best-of-seven with home ice rotating on a 2-2-1-1-1 basis, with the exception of matchups between Central and Pacific Division teams. These matchups were played on a 2-3-2 basis to reduce travel.

In a 2-3-2 series, the team with the most points could choose to start the series at home or on the road. The Eastern and Western champions faced off in the Cup Final.

Format pro: Fairer seeding based on season performance. Nice twist that some home teams could dictate the order they played their games.
Format con: Decreased chance of building familiar playoff rivals.

1994-95: Same as 1993-94, except that in first-, second- or third-round playoff series involving Central and Pacific division clubs, the team with the better record had the choice of using either a 2-3-2 or a 2-2-1-1-1 format.

When a 2-3-2 format was selected, the higher-ranked team also had the choice of playing games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at home or playing games 3, 4 and 5 at home. The format for the Stanley Cup Final remained 2-2-1-1-1.

Format pro: More options to reduce travel costs. Gave the better team a measure of control over series format.
Format con: Not every series follows the same home-away pattern.

1998-99: NHL clubs realigned into two conferences each consisting of three divisions — an idea championed by commissioner Gary Bettman. Still, 16 teams qualified.

First-round berths were awarded to the first-place team in each division as well as to the next five best teams based on regular-season point totals in each conference.

The three division winners in each conference were seeded first through third for the playoffs and the next five best teams, in order of points, were seeded fourth through eighth.

In each conference, the team seeded 1 played 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5 in the quarter-finals.

Home ice in the conference quarter-final was granted to those teams seeded 1 through 4 in each conference.

Format pro: More divisions reduces travel in regular season but still rewards based on conference standing.
Format con: Less meaning attached to divisional games, both in the regular and post-seasons.

2010-11: Introduction of the shootout brings a new tie-breaking procedure: In the event two or more clubs are tied in points at the conclusion of the regular season, the standing of the clubs in each conference will be determined in the following order:

1. The greater number of games won excluding games won in the

2. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied

3. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season.

Teams are reseeded each round according to regular-season performance.

Format pro: Hey, look, casual hockey fans: Shootouts! And they matter.
Format con: Birth of the loser point.

2013-14 to present: Meet the wild card. As the NHL realigned the teams in its Eastern and Western conferences, it created four fresh geographical divisions (Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific) and a new bracket-style playoff format.

The top three teams in each division qualify, as do four wild cards — the remaining two teams per conference with the best record.

Each divisional winner draws a first-round series with a wild-card team. The winner of that series plays the winner of the divisional 2-3 matchup. There is no more reseeding after each round, and the Cup Final always features one team from each conference.

The first tie-breaker is regulation and overtime wins.

Format pro: Intensifies divisional rivalries and races. Allows for March Madness–style bracket contests.
Format con: Creates an unfair advantage for teams in weaker divisions, and tougher early-round matches for strong teams in superior divisions. More teams in the East than in the West.

Whoa, there have been a ton of changes over the years. Mostly, the NHL gets it right: there is no more grueling or exciting tournament in sports.

Four rounds, best-of-sevens, sudden deaths, neighbourly hatred.

While we like the entertainment value of off-the-wall tweaks like allowing top seeds to pick an opponent of their choice (a.k.a. the Danish system), we don’t see that actually coming to fruition. Daly says it’s an “interesting concept” that has never been discussed in any meaningful way.

Ultimately, you’ll always have to balance regular-season rewards with rivalry-building.

Personally, I’m in favour of the rivalries. This year could see battles of Alberta and Ontario and California, plus a Pittsburgh-Washington showdown. Good things, no matter when they occur.

That said, we could lose the shootout. And the league should (and will) work towards conference balance. But instead of 32 teams, we’d like to see contraction to 30 or 28 quality ones.

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