OHL should do itself a favor and revamp playoff format

Either the Memorial Cup hosts or defending champs will be knocked out of the OHL playoffs in the first round when Windsor and London meet. There’s a simple solution to this problem.

The OHL playoffs are going to be very exciting this year – a little too exciting, as it turns out.

Thanks to the current post-season format, the Memorial Cup host Windsor Spitfires will play the defending champion London Knights in the first round. As hosts, the Spits loaded up on talent this season. They added offensive wizard and world junior gold medallist Jeremy Bracco (TOR), a big, top-four defenseman in Sean Day (NYR) and a veteran power forward in Graham Knott (CHI). Windsor already had NHL first-rounders Mikhail Sergachev (MTL), Logan Brown (OTT) and Logan Stanley (WPG), though Stanley is hurt right now.

The Knights on the other hand, returned star netminder Tyler Parsons (CGY), power forward Max Jones (ANA) and the first defenseman taken in the 2016 NHL draft, Olli Juolevi (VAN). Then they added Mitchell Stephens (TB), Mitch Vande Sompel (NYI) and Dante Salituro (CBJ), just in case they didn’t think they were scoring enough already.

One of these teams is going to be out in the first round. Why are they playing each other so early? Because three other teams in the Western Conference – Erie, Owen Sound and Sault Ste. Marie – were even better, piling up more than 100 points in a 68-game schedule. In terms of points won, you don’t find an Eastern Conference squad until No. 6 and the Peterborough Petes. So it feels like there’s a parity problem in the ‘O,’ no?

Last year, four of the five top teams were from the West and though this might not happen every season, following the QMJHL’s current format might be a more fair way to do things right now.

The ‘Q’ seeds teams 1-16, regardless of conference, with division winners getting the top three seeds. Right now, the OHL rewards division winners the same way, but breaks things down based on conference. In a just world, the 2017 OHL playoff bracket would see Windsor playing Kingston and London drawing Hamilton.

While travel concerns are valid in a league-wide format, it’s conveniently ironic that London is geographically closer to Hamilton than it is to Windsor.

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Plus, of the three CHL circuits, the OHL has the easiest travel footprint and the QMJHL has been fine with the 1-16 format.

Perhaps this problem seems so vexing because it’s Windsor and they’re the Memorial Cup hosts. You never want to see the host team knocked out of the playoffs early, especially when the talent on the roster justified the host bid in the first place. It’s not like the Spitfires won solely on rink and hotel availability.

But they could very well go down against the Knights and then Windsor has to wait a month and a half before it plays its first game of the Memorial Cup, when they are scheduled to play the winner of the QMJHL playoffs.

I’ve harped on the hosting situation at the Memorial Cup in the past, but never for the reason that the host squad got shafted by playoff seeding. The result is the same, however.

An arms race in the West is why we’re here right now, with players such as Connor McDavid, Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Matthew Tkachuk and Sergachev all fuelling the fire. Toss in incredibly built teams in the Soo and Owen Sound (the Attack went 17-1-2 in their final 20 games) this season and you’ve got your logjam.

Meanwhile, the best teams in the East will have much easier paths to the final. If the regular season is going to mean anything, it wouldn’t hurt for the OHL to tweak its playoff format. Most fans outside of London call the Knights the ‘Evil Empire’ or worse and it’s great to have that franchise that everyone else wants to beat. But you also have to tip your hat to the Knights for being one of the best outfits every year, despite losing top talents to the NHL early. Matching up with another stacked team in the first round doesn’t seem very fair, when the solution seems relatively simple right now.