The NHL regular season does not matter. That’s probably not what the NHL wants its fans to believe about the 1,230 games that come just before the 90 or so playoff games from April to June, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. That’s really the only way you can explain what’s going on with the NHL’s playoff format, an outright embarrassing system to have for a professional sports league in 2017.
Here’s the difficult math problem the NHL is working with: there are four teams on pace to get over 110 points this season, what teams should they face in the opening round of the playoffs? Logically, one would think they should each get to face one of the four weakest teams that qualify, but this league is sometimes devoid from logic so instead, two of them will play each other. A perfect setup.
There’s been a lot of spilled ink on this over the past few months, once it looked clear that this was the direction the playoff race was heading. Travis Yost over at TSN wrote something on the subject a month ago, our very own Ken Campbell wrote something just last week and just two days ago we got another piece from Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press with quotes from some of the affected parties.
There isn’t much left to be said about this – it clearly stinks and most people would agree – but what’s being glossed over is the sheer magnitude of this issue. It’s all well and good to say “two of the best three teams playing each other in the first round is a big issue that’s unfair to both those teams,” but just how big of an issue is it? The numbers are pretty astounding, and if you happen to be a Penguins or Blue Jackets fan you may want to look away.
Based on the current projected seeding, the East would have the Penguins (2nd in the league) playing the Blue Jackets (3rd), the Canadiens (8th) hosting the Rangers (6th), and the Senators (10th) hosting the Leafs (14th). If the league were to go to a 1 vs. 8 scenario (foregoing the need for divisional seeds because there’s only two divisions now) the East would instead have the Penguins hosting the Leafs, the Blue Jackets getting home ice against the Senators, and the Rangers with home ice against the Canadiens.
Based on their regulation win percentage (no use including 3-on-3 or shootouts here), this is how likely each team is to win their round one match-up in those two formats.
The fact neither of Columbus or the Rangers would have home ice in the first scenario is ludicrous. It’s a three point swing, and while that’s not much, it’s still something. But that pales in comparison to the swing that comes from different opponents.
Under the current system, Columbus, with their likely 110-plus point season has roughly the same chance of playing more than (at-most) seven games of playoff hockey as the Leafs. That shouldn’t be. Against the Senators in a 1 vs. 8 system, their chances are a full 29 percent higher. The Penguins would go up 23 percent in a new system, playing the Leafs instead of the Jackets. The Sens and Leafs chances fall by just around the same amount. And that’s how it should be given where these four teams expect to finish.
It’s a huge swing, and the fact it can even happen is mind-boggling. The path through Ontario is so much easier than the Metro. The Ontario teams likely playing each other in a 6 vs. 7 matchup isn’t even peak NHL incompetence because we already saw it happen two seasons ago in a Calgary vs. Vancouver series between the worst two teams in the playoffs. These middling teams should be a tasty treat for an actual powerhouse, a warm-up for the real thing. Instead, one of the minnows is guaranteed to advance while two contenders go head-to-head in the first round.
Even if you believe (like I do) that regulation win percentage isn’t the best measure of talent – especially because those percentages were a bit too high – the effect is still there using other methods. Using my model (which we use for point projections and playoff chances), the swing for Columbus from facing Pittsburgh (30 percent chance) to Ottawa (62 percent chance) is actually even bigger at 32 percent, while Toronto goes down 26 percent going from Ottawa (52 percent) to Pittsburgh (24 percent). The swing is smaller for Ottawa and Pittsburgh because of how overwhelmingly good the Penguins are compared to the other three teams, but it’s still enough to give pause.
However you choose to measure team strength, it’s a large issue that’s making the third best team an underdog in Round 1 rather than a heavy favorite against a guppy. Does that make sense to anyone?
Some people may argue that there’s no easy path in the playoffs, and that’s clearly false as proven by our dear friend math. There may be no “easy” paths, but there are definitely easier paths. Some teams are significantly weaker than others, and while victory is no guarantee against them, it is much more probable and the honour of playing them should go to the best teams.
Others argue that it shouldn’t matter because they’ll have to face the good teams eventually. That point has some legs, but it falls when discussing merit. Being the second or third best team in the league should mean something. Being that good for 82 games should come with a reward. It should mean that second round hockey is more likely. That honor should not go to the 10th and 14th best teams because of geographical convenience.
Yes, they’ll have to face the good teams eventually, but that doesn’t mean they should get thrown to the wolves at the very first opportunity. That’s how we get the East’s two best teams playing each other in Round 2 last year instead of an in epic conference final clash. It’s not fair for the teams who conquered the regular season to be more likely to play less playoff hockey simply because of how the divisions are aligned.
The worst part of this whole ordeal is that the team most affected by it is a team like Columbus. A team mired in years of ineptitude after expansion that’s played 10 playoff games in its entire existence. A team that’s setting franchise records throughout the year in the best season they’ve ever had. A team that fans can rally around as they finally look ready to compete. What does this team get for finally having a team worth cheering for – a team that actually has the ability to go deep? A first round date with last year’s Cup champions, on the road. Thanks for the magical season, Columbus, your first round opponent is one of the only other two teams with more points than you this year. There’s your reward for no longer being a laughing stock in this league.
Columbus is getting royally screwed here, and at what cost? For some “rivalries?” The NHL wants and needs to grow the game, and a story like Columbus would go a long way in the state of Ohio, especially a year after their affiliate in Cleveland won the AHL championship. There’s real momentum here that might’ve propelled Columbus into becoming a real bonafide hockey town if this team – a team no one believed in – made a little run. But that’s looking much less likely now, all thanks to a stupid playoff format that makes little sense for anyone involved.
Columbus will have one of the best regular season records this year, the best they’ve ever had. But when their playoffs start on the road against one of the two teams in the league with more points that happens to be in their division, it’ll be like none of it even mattered.
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