Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Carson: NHL needs to change playoff format

In 2002, then-New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards uttered one of the most recognizable press conference quotes of all time, reminding the world that, yes, “You play to win the game.”

At least in theory.

On Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, two of the NHL’s four best teams met in a game that lived up to what you’d expect: Brandon Dubinsky scored off a great individual effort to lead the host Blue Jackets past the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime, 2-1. You’d be right to call it a potential preview of a great playoff series — these are two of the best teams in the league, and of the three contests this year between the teams, two have gone to overtime.

There’s only one problem with this being a potential playoff preview: It could be a preview of a first-round matchup.

Thanks to the quirks of the NHL’s playoff system — and the quirks of the Metropolitan division being far superior to any other — if the Stanley Cup playoffs started today, the Penguins and Blue Jackets, the league’s third- and fourth-best teams, respectively, would meet in the first round.

Three teams are guaranteed to make the playoffs from each of the NHL’s four divisions, with two wild card teams per conference completing the field; the No. 2 and 3 finishers from each division play each other, while each division champion is matched up with a wild card team. In the East this year, that’s created a scenario where the Penguins, Blue Jackets and New York Rangers are embroiled in a race to, well, fourth place?

Right now, the 82-point Penguins and 79-point Blue Jackets would be matched up in each other in the first round, playing for the right to, more than likely, get the NHL-leading Washington Capitals in the second round. For the Blue Jackets, that would mean having to win four games against Sidney Crosby, hockey’s best player, then following it up with four games against Alexander Ovechkin, the sport’s best scorer. To survive the two series would be one hell of an accomplishment.

Yet, by virtue of sitting in a wild card spot — a less advantageous position, in theory — the 78-point New York Rangers would get a much easier path to the conference finals, playing the inferior 72-point Montreal Canadiens in the first round, before either seeing the 70-point Ottawa Senators or 67-point Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round.

You can flip the teams around, but at the end of the day, the story stays the same: Whoever finishes fourth in the Metropolitan will have the easiest path in the playoffs, having the chance to slide through the Atlantic’s offerings while the top three teams in the Metropolitan battle it out for a spot in the conference finals.

That the same thing happened last year, too, is further proof that the NHL’s system is flawed. The New York Islanders finished last season winning just eight of their last 17 games, entering the playoffs on a bit of a slide. But in doing so, they fell behind the Rangers, who finished No. 3 in the Metropolitan, and into a wild card spot.

The Rangers were “rewarded” with a first-round match up against the eventual Stanley Cup winner Penguins. The Islanders got the overachieving Atlantic winner Florida Panthers, who they beat 4-2.

I could buy the division-based playoff system a little better if the NHL heavily weighted in-division games in its scheduling formula. But it doesn’t, with only 30 of a team’s 82 games played within the division.

If the NHL wanted to reserve a top-two seed for its division winners, that’d be fine. But at the end of the year, the two best teams in each conference might come from the same division, meaning we’d see what should be the conference finals a series early at the semifinal stage.

With next year’s introduction of the Vegas Golden Knights as the league’s 31st team, it’ll create a natural opportunity for the NHL to re-evaluate its playoff seeding procedures. And when the team executives get together to discuss rule changes, they should eliminate the race down the standings.