Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A look back at over 100 years of the NHL’s playoff format never making one damn bit of sense

It’s​ the most wonderful​ time​ of​ the​ year.​ Specifically,​ the time​ of year for​ everyone to start​ complaining​ about the playoff​​ format.

It’s pretty much an annual tradition. By this point we’re far enough into the season that the standings are starting to firm up and we can look ahead to potential matchups. But some of those matchups don’t seem to make sense. In the East, three of the four best teams are all in the same division, meaning two of Tampa, Toronto and Buffalo would face each other in the first round. That’s not fair! And it’s also not fair that you could conceivably have teams like the Lightning and Leafs finish with the two best records in the conference, or even the entire league, and still end up playing in the second round. That scenario played out last year in the West with Winnipeg and Nashville and we could see the exact same thing with those two teams this year. It could end up like 2017, when the Blue Jackets had the fourth-best record in all of hockey, and had hit the road in Round 1 to face the No. 2 Penguins and everyone was furious.

There has to be a better way, right?

Well, probably. The current format has some advantages, including an emphasis on divisional matchups that create the sort of rivalries that make the sport so much fun. Maybe that’s an acceptable tradeoff in your book and maybe it isn’t. You might prefer to see the league go back to conference-based seeding. Or maybe you have some other idea.

But whatever your view, you’ve probably expressed frustration at the NHL’s ever-changing format. After all, how hard can it be to get this right?

Well, hold that thought. Because as it turns out, the NHL’s playoff format has never made sense. Like, ever.

When you look back at 100+ years of NHL history, you realize that having an unintuitive playoff format that confuses everyone and leads to weird matchups is just one of those hockey traditions that we all may as well get used to. Because it’s much pretty much always been this way.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look back at the various formats the league has used over the years and see if we can find one that made everyone happy. Spoiler alert: We will not.

The first decade: Deadly flus, arena fires, player strikes and miscellaneous chaos

We can give the NHL a bit of a pass for being all over the map in its formative years. The league was brand new, with teams coming and going, arenas burning down and occasional influenza outbreaks derailing everything. It was a different time.

But even with that in mind, the league did some things that would strike us as odd today. For the first few seasons, it divided the season into two halves (which were “halves” in name only because they usually didn’t contain the same number of games) and had the team with the best record from each half play each other for the league title. And if the same team won both halves, as the Ottawa Senators did in 1920? Then there weren’t any playoffs. They just skipped them altogether.

After a few years of that, the league dropped the halved-season format and had the top two teams in the standings play for the title. But instead of playing a best-of-something, the teams played a two-game total goals series. That format was then expanded to three teams in 1925 … or at least it was supposed to. But the first-place Hamilton Tigers went on strike and were suspended, meaning the league title was determined by a meeting between the second and third-ranked teams without the best team even taking the ice.

Mix in the fact that none of those championships even determined the Stanley Cup winner – in those days, the NHL champ still had to face a team from another league for that honor – and it was a bit of a mess. But again, the league was new. Surely they’d figure it out in the second decade.

The second decade: They did not figure it out

By 1926-27, the league had ten teams divided into two five-team divisions called the American and the Canadian, which seems pretty straightforward until you remember that one of the teams in the Canadian division was the New York Americans, at which point you’ll need to go lie down for a while.

But by 1928-29, the NHL had come up with a format that would last for the next decade. Three teams in each division would make the playoffs, with the second and third seeds facing each other in a two-game series. So far so good. But try to guess who the two division winners played in the opening round.

If you said: “Nobody, because they got a bye,” then you understand how playoffs should work and can go watch some other sport, because this is the NHL and nothing has ever made sense.

No, the two division winners played each other. In the first round. In a best-of-five. That was their reward for finishing first. One of them would be eliminated right away, while the other would survive to face whichever team emerged from the non-division-winner bracket.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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