So it’s the last day of the regular season and the Chicago Blackhawks are visiting the Detroit Red Wings in an afternoon game. Just for kicks and giggles, let’s say the Blackhawks and Red Wings go into that game either tied in the standings or separated by a single point.
The winner of that game finishes fifth in the Western Conference and the loser takes the No. 6 spot. The difference between the two seedings is either a date with the Nashville Predators in the first round or one of the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings or Phoenix Coyotes.
Which one would you take? It’s this kind of recipe for disaster the NHL creates with its ridiculous rule that stipulates the winner of each division takes one of the top three seeds in each conference. If that does come to pass, you can bet the Red Wings will sit out Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg and the Blackhawks will give the day off to Jonathan Toews (assuming he has returned from his concussion by then), Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. And they’ll be able to use the excuse they’re resting their stars for the playoffs when really all they’re trying to do is lose the game.
How would you like to pay top dollar for prime tickets for that game? Chances are if you’re at that game, you’re attending it cheering for your team to lose.
It’s much the same in the Eastern Conference, where the New Jersey Devils might be sitting prettier than any other team. That’s because if they can hang onto the sixth seed, they stand an excellent chance of drawing the Florida Panthers in the first round. The Philadelphia Flyers, meanwhile, will likely get the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1, which will be their “reward” for finishing ahead of the Devils in the standings. The Boston Bruins, meanwhile, will almost certainly finish the season with fewer points than the Flyers, but will likely draw one of the Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals or Buffalo Sabres in the first round.
How does any of this make any sense at all? It doesn’t. It didn’t make any sense when the Carolina Hurricanes were seeded third in the East despite having the eighth best record when the league went to its three-division format in 1998-99 and it doesn’t make any sense now.
If the league were truly concerned with fairness and the integrity of the game, it would address this inequity in the next round of realignment. Of course, you’d hear howls of protest from the members of the South-Least Division, a cluster of teams that has had more success handed to them by doing less than any other in the league. The increasingly feeble Pacific Division would probably join the chorus as well, if we know the NHL Board of Governors the way we think we do. When it comes to promoting the interests of the individual over the good of the whole, these guys will look out for No. 1 every time.
But that’s only 10 teams, which means another 20 should theoretically be in favor of change. At the very least, the league could do away with the divisional seedings and award them to the teams that finish first through eighth, regardless of what division they occupy. And while the prospect would be remote, it would be almost mathematically impossible for an entire division to be shut out of the playoff picture.
Or the league could get really bold and go back to the days when it simply seeded teams from one through 16 based on their point totals. And once again, there has been no year that a division would have been shut out under that format since 1998-99.
The league could retain the division format for the purposes of an unbalanced schedule, but since the divisions basically mean nothing beyond that, why not take the natural next step? Rivalries now are basically forged by the playoffs, not the regular season. The Vancouver Canucks and Chicago don’t play in the same division and they have one of the most heated hate-ons for one another in the league.
But most importantly, a move to a points-for-seeding format would make things more equitable and stop giving a free pass to teams that don’t deserve to get it. And it might prevent sixth place from developing into the most desired spot in the conference.
If the playoffs were to start today, here’s what the East matchups would look like based solely on points with no regard for division winners:
No. 1 N.Y. Rangers vs. No. 8 Washington; No. 2 Pittsburgh vs. No. 7 Ottawa; No. 3 Philadelphia vs. No. 6 Florida; No. 4 Boston vs. No. 5 New Jersey.
And the Western Conference:
No. 1 St. Louis vs. No. 8 Los Angeles; No. 2 Vancouver vs. No. 7 Phoenix; No. 3 Nashville vs. No. 6 Dallas; No. 4 Detroit vs. No. 5 Chicago.
And if the league went back to No. 1 through 16, there would be some very intriguing matchups:
No. 1 St. Louis vs. No. 16 Ottawa; No. 2 N.Y. Rangers vs. No. 15 San Jose; No. 3 Pittsburgh vs. No. 14 Los Angeles; No. 4 Vancouver vs. No. 13 Phoenix; No. 5 Philadelphia vs. No. 12 Florida; No. 6 Nashville vs. No. 11 Dallas; No. 7 Detroit vs. No. 10 New Jersey; No. 8 Chicago vs. No. 9 Boston.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.