Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.
That does not mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favour changing the format — and most support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western Conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.
This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and had to meet in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.
Savard was one of 15 players surveyed (48.4 per cent) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6 per cent) said it should stay the same and the other nine (29 per cent) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.
‘I think it’s good for rivalries,” says Devils’ Schneider
The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are meeting in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row.
There is little doubt those teams hate each other a lot more now than they did before this playoff format.
“I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”
Added Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk: “I can’t think of a player that really likes the way it is. It always seems to work out where one division is significantly stronger like last year with Winnipeg and Nashville playing in the second round and absolutely beating the crap out of each other to seven games.”
Travel a big concern
Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could have to face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.
The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.
The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a “challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenceman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet.
The regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.— Veteran Penguins defenceman Kris Letang
A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.
“I think there’s pros and cons to both,” said New York Islanders forward Anders Lee. “I think if you’re in a position if you’re a 2-3-4 seed, you would have loved to have a better matchup. If you’re the 2 seed you’re playing the 3 seed. That might be tough. I totally get that. I don’t really have a bone to pick with it right now.”
Move to play-in system?
That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.
Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.
“We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. “Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?
“I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others. Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that,” Cole said. “It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”