Wednesday, July 07, 2004

NHL Playoff Format

In my opinion, the NHL playoff format needs to be revamped. Why? The current format has 16 of 30 teams headed to post-season play. Not only do the six division leaders make the cut, but 10 other teams make it. It's too easy to make the cut. The Presidents' Trophy winning team is given no special treatment other than home-ice "advantage" throughout the playoffs. Advantage is in quotations because it can be a factor but is many times an overestimated facet of a seven game series. The most important thing about home-ice advantage is having Game 7 in your own building. Other than that, it's really a toss up whether or not it helps your club. In addition, the top teams from each conference are not rewarded enough for their successful seasons. My idea is to give more importance to the divisions. In my prospective playoff format, I'd give automatic playoff bids to the six division winners, and have 6 at large/wildcard seeds to split between the East and West. Conference winners and teams that finish second in points will get a first bound bye. This gives teams a reason to play hard and stay second in points in their conference even though they really may be a forth seed. In the first round, the 1 and 2/4 seeds will have a bye. Facing off is 3 versus 5 (if 4 seed has bye) or 6 (if 2 seed has bye). Then, either the 2 seed plays 6 (if 4 seed has bye) or 4 seed plays 5 (if 2 seed has bye). A major premise of this bye system is to reward teams for placing second in points in their conference even if they are only getting the forth seed based on being in a tough division. This is a situation that has played out before when the Wings and Blues were close division rivals. The following is a mock playoff example for the West to illustrate how things would pan out under my playoff format: * = first round bye (#) = seeding Central (1)* Wings 100 (4)* Blues 99 Predators 82 Blue Jackets 75 Blackhawks 68 Northwest (2) Canucks 95 (5) Avalanche 93 Flames 86 Oilers 83 Wild 72 Pacific (3) Sharks 94 (6) Stars 89 Kings 84 Mighty Ducks 75 Coyotes 71 For this hypothetical standings, the Wings (1) and Blues (4) would get the first round byes, even though the Blues took a forth seed. The first round wildcard matchups would be Canucks (2) versus Stars (6), and Sharks (3) versus Avalanche (5). In panning out the winners, I'd take Canucks (2) and Sharks (3). Still holding the forth seed, the Blues would be somewhat punished for not taking first in their division, but not overly-so, as they had a first round bye to reward their efforts. The second round would consist of Wings (1) versus Blues (4), and Canucks (2) versus Sharks (3). And so on... If Only... So, for this year's standings, the following would've happened in the West if my playoff format was instituted: * = first round bye (#) = seeding Central (1)* Wings 109 Blues 91 Predators 91 Blue Jackets 62 Blackhawks 59 Northwest (3) Canucks 101 (4) Avalanche 100 (6) Flames 94 Oilers 89 Wild 83 Pacific (2)* Sharks 104 (5) Stars 97 Kings 81 Mighty Ducks 76 Coyotes 68 My playoff format cuts out the Blues and Predators, the 7 and 8 seeds, from the 2004 playoffs. 7th and 8th seeds in the Stanley Cup playoffs are often push-overs and have never won a Cup. So the 2004 playoffs according to me proceeds as follows: The Wings and Sharks get a first round bye as the top two point-getters and, as it happens, first and second seeds. Canucks (3) versus Flames (6) Avalanche (4) versus Stars (5) The Flames (6) would beat the Canucks (3), and the Avalanche (4) would beat the Stars (5). That would make for a second round looking like this: Wings (1) versus Flames (6) --> as it happened anyways Sharks (2) versus Avalanche (4) --> as it happened anyways The Flames (6) would beat the Wings(1), and the Sharks (2) would beat the Avalanche (4). This creates the same 2004 playoffs (at least when I look at it in this vacuum, not considering how the bye affects the Wings and/or Sharks), and gives the Wings a first round bye, much-needed rest instead of having to play the Predators. In addition, the Sharks don't have to play the Blues (who they easily beat 4-1). Realizing that the East was insanely tight this past season, let's take a look at how my playoff format affects the coastal teams: * = first round bye (#) = seeding Atlantic (3) Flyers 101 (6) Devils 100 Islanders 91 Rangers 69 Penguins 58 Northeast (2)* Bruins 104 (4) Maple Leafs 103 (5) Senators 102 Canadiens 93 Sabres 85 Southeast (1)* Lightning 106 Thrashers 78 Hurricanes 76 Panthers 75 Capitals 59 Eliminated are the Canadiens and Islanders. Notice that the six 100-pt clubs all make post-season action. With the Lightning and Bruins owning first round byes, the first round would be: Flyers (3) versus Devils (6) --> as it happened anyways Maple Leafs (4) versus Senators (5) --> as it happened anyways Philly and Toronto win their series, and the second round is as follows: Lightning (1) versus Maple Leafs (4) Bruins (2) versus Flyers (3) And who knows what would've happened from there... The main point of showing the Eastern Conference playoff bracket is that you see how the main contenders play and wallowers (Canadiens, Islanders) are rooted out. Gary Bettman's Communism Now I realize that the NHL is all about inclusion, from their efforts to help the needy teams with a future salary cap, to allowing 16 of 30 teams in with the current playoff format, to creating tropical teams which harbor hockey but produce no stars (that's a whole different article!). In addition, the NHL would hate to lose the revenue of four 7th and 8th seed teams participating in the playoffs. While my format keeps with three rounds and a Cup Final, it eliminates four teams and gives four others a bye round. Not exactly following Gary Bettman's Law of Inclusion, but making more sense for teams, like the Wings, who play amazing in the regular season but are given nothing in return. Home-ice is no longer enough "reward" for leading the league in an 82 game season. Like the NFL, the top teams should be given a bye round to rest after their break-neck seasons. And as for teams like the Flames that would narrowly make the post-season under my format, I say this: Make your playoff push earlier!! The Flames were a hungry enough team this past season to make the cut in a chopped-down bracket like I'm offering. And if "deserving" teams miss the cut, they need to learn from the tough experience and make the extra push the following season. If you don't follow my points about NHL Inclusion, read up on the league's history of playoff formats. If you think 16 of 30 making the playoffs is good odds, in 1979-80, the league included 16 of 21. That was when four WHA franchises entered the league (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques). I used Origins of the Game as reference to my study. By the way, Al Arbour's New York Islanders won the Cup in '80, the first of four straight Cup wins. Here's a list of Cup winners and their seed, if you're interested in how eliminating the 7 and 8 seeds would affect the past. Realize that the playoff formats changed a lot, as did number of teams in the league at any given time. But my main point is that, despite the league's efforts to give underdogs a chance at winning, they rarely or never do. 2004 Lightning (1) 2003 Devils (2) 2002 Wings (1) 2001 Avalanche (1) 2000 Devils (4) 1999 Stars (1) 1998 Wings (3) 1997 Wings (3) 1996 Avalanche (2) 1995 Devils (5) 1994 Rangers (1) Below I change from seed to overall conference ranking in points, as the playoff format changed drastically after the 1993 Cup Finals. And looking at those old seedings to our current ones is like apples and oranges. 1993 Canadiens (4) 1992 Penguins (4) 1991 Penguins (3) 1990 Oilers (2) 1989 Flames (1) 1988 Oilers (2) 1987 Oilers (1) 1986 Canadiens (5) 1985 Oilers (1) 1984 Oilers (1) 1983 Islanders (4) 1982 Islanders (1) 1981 Islanders (1) 1980 Islanders (2) 1979 Canadiens (1) 1978 Canadiens (1) 1977 Canadiens (1) -->notably Scotty Bowman's 60-8-12 season 1976 Canadiens (1) 1975 Flyers (1) 1974 Flyers (1) 1973 Canadiens (1) 1972 Bruins (1) 1971 Canadiens (3) 1970 Bruins (2) Need I continue? This breakdown of the past 35 Stanley Cup winners clearly shows that the top 5 teams in a given conference are the teams that win the Cup. This past year, the Flames were one game away from being the first sixth seed in the modern era to win the Cup. Other than that, Cup winners are most likely division winners or close by. So I am still comfortable axing the 7 and 8 seeds. Other Leagues Let's look to other professional leagues, such as the NBA, NFL, and MLB, and see what percentage of regular season teams make the cut for the post-season. Maybe we're being too harsh on 7 and 8. Or not... NHL currently: 16 of 30 (53.3%) NHL under my format: 12 of 30 (40%) NBA: 16 of 29 (55.2%) NFL: 12 of 32 (37.5%) MLB: 8 of 30 (26.7%) As you can see, it's not exactly unprecedented to make the post-season a more special feat. I see the NHL's current system as a sort of grade inflation, allowing teams like the St Louis Blues to make the playoffs 25 straight seasons and not win a thing. Sure, part of it is choking, but I also see some of their failures as simply not warranting a playoff spot. This past season, as a seventh seed, they were smoked by the Sharks 4-1. The Blues didn't deserve to be there, and the Sharks deserved a rest. See where I'm going with this bye system? Motivation In an 82-game season, a team's motivation is what keeps them chugging from October to April. With the current playoff format, I honestly don't see what gets the Wings excited about becoming a conference leader. In these days of ever-increasing parity, seeding is not a perfect measure of talent. Just look at the Eastern Conference standings after this past season, and you'll see seeds one through six separated by six points. In the current format, I really don't want the Wings to win another Presidents Trophy and outskate teams for seven months of regular season play, because it really doesn't pay off as for the playoff picture. My format makes a great season pay off by awarding the first round bye. Admitted Weaknesses The only weakness of this playoff format is that it guarantees the bye to the team second in points, so they will not be pushing as hard to pass the team in first. But it also gives a reward to these teams that have been screwed over with the current format. In addition, while it helps the 4th seed that may be second in points, it punishes the 5th seed or any other team that comes short for not making that extra push at the end. In the end, there will never be a perfect system, but we should at least push for a system that better rewards top teams for playing well for 82 games through seven months. With a bye system, I believe teams will play harder to try to earn the all-important week-or-more rest. In addition, the current 16 team playoff participants often know they have their spot clinched a month or more in advance. This system cuts the field down to 12 and gives teams who have earned to clinch their spot that much more to play for. I don't believe that my system would slam the door on teams like the 2004 Flames, as they could just start their runs to make the playoffs earlier. And if Bettmanites scoff at my system as intrinsically flawed for cutting down the number of playoff series and thus revenue, I say this: then why the heck are you considering a chopped-down 72-game season? I'm sure the NHLPA would love my playoff format, as our stars can play less and make the same. In conclusion, we should no longer reward garbage teams playoff seeds and ignore the success of conference champions. The playoffs are not about teams that merely survive the regular season (as in 16), but teams that excel in the 82 games (as in 12).


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