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NHL playoff format needs fixed, not expanded


There has been a decisive uptick in discussion about National Hockey League expansion in recent weeks. And we aren’t merely talking affiliate expansion and the push towards a 34-team league; the public debate as to whether the NHL should pursuit an NBA-style playoff format expansion has also increased.

For a variety of reasons (and surely, a topic worth getting to in the off-season here), I don’t think the NHL should expand its playoff footprint, though it’s a nuanced debate and one that brings real incremental business opportunity to a league yearning for growth.

Setting aside the playoff expansion debate for a moment, can I bring to your attention – for what seems like an annual recurrence since the league reformatted to a divisional-based playoff format in 2014 – to a colossal issue that can be fixed in a moment’s notice? It’s the current playoff format.

It is a topic I have exhausted in this space, but it’s also a problem the league has yet to address. When the NHL made its format changes, much of the focus was on rewarding divisional winners and the hybrid wild-card system. What was lost, or at least sorely misunderstood, were the ramifications of forcing the second- and third-best teams within a given division to play each other in the first round.

Simply put, any time you have a talent imbalance at the divisional level, you carry the risk of creating a very inefficient playoff seeding. This season, we have seen this train barreling down the tracks for some time.

While the Western Conference playoff race has been amazing (notably without any wild-card chase, thanks to the clustering of the top eight teams), the Eastern Conference’s has been abysmal. None of the wild-card teams, save for the Pittsburgh Penguins, are playing like they want to qualify for the playoffs.

This season, the two-versus-three first-round matchup is creating major problems in the Metropolitan and Central divisions.

The Metropolitan, of course, is by far the weakest of the four groups. The New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes each look like Stanley Cup contenders, but the rest of the division has been appalling to watch for much of the year.

Meanwhile, in the other Eastern Conference division, Toronto and Tampa Bay – two other high-quality teams – are jockeying for the third and final seed in the Atlantic, which means the loser of that race will draw into a wild-card seed against a top-seeded Eastern foe.

So, despite almost certainly finishing below presumptive division-winner Boston in the standings, Carolina will face a materially easier opponent in the first round:

Just think about the math here. Carolina could finish as low as fifth in the conference, and yet draw the seventh-best team as a result.

Compare that to the Central Division’s forced two-versus-three matchup, where it is likely the second-seeded Colorado Avalanche will be facing a Winnipeg Jets team with 106 points – about 15 points to the upside of where we expect the Islanders (or any of the other wild-card chasers in the East) to finish!

The format is at best illogical, and that’s true whether you are a fan of the current setup, would like to see a return to a more traditional one-versus-eight (pre-2014) at the conference level, or something slightly more radical, like a 16-team playoff format that’s blind to conferences.

The regular season is intended to do many things; one of those things is to separate contenders and pretenders, and to ensure that there is a meaningful reward for outperformance over those 82 games. In a sport as volatile as hockey, you would think the NHL would at least seed teams to start the playoffs in top-down fashion.

Even if the league doesn’t want to dramatically overhaul its playoff format and thinks divisional-based hockey is good, this format only works when you have equitable talent and performance across each division.

Ten years later, we have yet to see that be the case. In the instance of this season, there is dramatic impact in multiple divisions, with some benefitting while others are pulling their hair out at their likely playoff fate.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey