Wednesday, December 26, 2018

How I’d fix the NHL’s playoff format

Last​ week, we had​ some​ fun​ with​ the​ NHL’s​ playoff format.​ Since everyone likes​ to complain about​ today’s​ system, I pointed​​ out that the league has never been able to get this right. For over 100 years now, through dozens of different systems, there’s always been something wrong.

Lots of people told me they enjoyed the post. They learned something or at least had a good laugh. But then, inevitably, came the follow-up: OK then, smart guy, can you come up with something better?

Yes. Yes, I can.

When Gary Bettman retires and I’m named his replacement, I already know what the new playoff format will look like. If you want to be surprised when that day comes, stop reading now. But I took my shots at the league’s century of playoff format failure, so it’s only fair that I make the case for what I believe would be the correct answer.

It’s an idea I first floated over five years ago, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to come up with it. And in a few minutes, you’re going to be on board too.

The setup

The first step in building our new format is that we’re going back to using conference-based seeding for the first round. The top eight teams in each conference will make the playoffs, regardless of division, and they’ll be seeded one-through-eight based on standings.

I’ll stop here to acknowledge that we’ve already got a problem, because conference seeding means we’re going to reduce the chances of seeing those divisional rivalries the league loves so much. It’s one of the main reasons we have the current division-based format – because the league wants to see matchups like Boston/Montreal or Los Angeles/San Jose as often as possible. Those pairings are still possible in a conference-based system, but they become less likely. Some fans won’t care, but I happen to love those rivalry matchups. I think they’re part of what makes playoff hockey great. If you do too, and you’re disappointed that my format will feature fewer rivalry matchups, I’m going to ask you to hold that thought for a few more paragraphs.

So yeah, we’re back to conference-based seeding. This is basically how the system worked from 1994 through to 2013, although we’re throwing in a new wrinkle: We won’t be automatically giving the top seeds to the division winners. In fact, the division winners won’t matter at all. If the best three teams in the East are all in the Atlantic, then they’ll be the top three seeds. If the Central has six of the eight best teams in the West, then all six make the playoffs, in whatever order they’ve earned based on their regular season records. No automatic seeding for division winners.

That will strike fans as odd, since we’re used to the league always rewarding division winners with a top seed. But there’s really no need to. I’m not going to get into whether or not we’d use a balanced schedule for this format because it really doesn’t matter. But if the schedule is balanced, with all the teams in a conference playing each other an equal number of times, then the divisions don’t really matter. And if its unbalanced (like it is now), then a team that wins a weak division has played an easier schedule and already had an advantage. There’s no reason to reward them with another one once the playoffs start.

So we’re seeding each conference one through eight, without regard to division winners. And yes, that detail turns out to be important in a moment.

The first round has each conference playing the typical matchups: 1-vs-8, 2-vs-7 and so on. In Round 2 we re-seed, so the highest-ranked team left plays the lowest. This ruins the concept of filling out a bracket, which some fans enjoy, but it’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make. All of this means that the two best teams in the conference or even the league can’t end up playing in the second round, like happened last year with the Jets and Predators, and could happen this year with the Lightning and Leafs.

So far, so good. We’re two rounds into the playoffs, and there are four teams left, two from each conference. A few minor wrinkles aside, this isn’t all that different from what fans were used to a few years ago.

And then, something very simple yet beautiful will happen.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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