The NHL Playoffs format is terrible but we’re stuck with it

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 23: A general view of attendees looking closely at the Stanley Cup is seen at the Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend at Class of 1923 Arena, University of Pennsylvania on February 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 23: A general view of attendees looking closely at the Stanley Cup is seen at the Willie O'Ree Skills Weekend at Class of 1923 Arena, University of Pennsylvania on February 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Now that the Tampa Bay Lightning have clinched the first spot in the 2019 NHL playoffs, the annual NHL playoffs format debate is making the rounds again.

The NHL boasts the worst playoff format out of the four major professional sports leagues in North America. It is illogical, unfair and quite confusing to new fans. But, due to the existence of a profit motive in professional sports, you shouldn’t be surprised the NHL playoffs format as it exists is here to stay.

As they always do, loyal hockey fans fell to their knees, clinging to the hope that the NHL would address their concerns. Following the GM meetings in Florida earlier this month, however, the issue is apparently not even up for discussion.

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More likely, general managers Kevin Cheveldayoff, Brad Treliving, and Kyle Dubas split a bowl of champagne more valuable than the Stanley Cup, laughing hysterically at the ever-increasing league-wide goal totals.

With the continuation of the playoff format, fans are being forced to face what is an unfortunate truth about our consumption of sport. No matter how much one decorates hockey with stories, jerseys, and rivalries, the NHL is still a business with a profit motive. Even if one playoff format is basically objectively better than another, revenue is the only priority. Our enjoyment only matters to a certain extent.

Why the format is terrible

Just to make it clear, the point of this isn’t just to say “Get used to it.” The playoff system should be criticized, even if we as fans cannot do much about it. Firstly, as teams in the Atlantic Division are realizing, divisions are bad sample sizes.

One division is always going to be better than the other. Every season, one conference generally takes this to the extreme. This time around, the most glaring example is the Atlantic’s superiority to the Metropolitan.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs make up three of the top 5 teams in the league. Logically, they should be facing teams in the bottom half of the top 16. Well, the Lightning would get to face the eighth seed in the East, which seems like a good start. That’s the same as it would be in the old system.

However, the Bruins, the second best team in the league, have to play the Leafs, who are currently the fifth best team in the first round. You still have to be good to get into the playoffs, but the division you happen to be in now matters a lot more than how good the team is.

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The top three teams in the Metropolitan Division, all lower than the top three in the Atlantic, get a far easier path to the semi-finals because they happen to be in a weaker division. This system arbitrarily rewards teams for being in inferior divisions.

Not only is this unfair, but it makes for an anti-climactic road to the Cup. If the Bruins beat the Leafs and Lightning in the first two rounds, for example, they will be matched against a weaker team in the conference finals. These playoffs tend to knock off the best teams in the league in the first few rounds.

And then, worst of all, there’s the incentive to lose. This seems to be happening every season now. This happens when the first wild card team has an easier run to the Cup than the third-best team in their division.

While this luckily is not the case this time around, things were different in 2017, where the Metropolitan was stacked instead. If the New York Rangers were to have passed the Columbus Blue Jackets, they would have faced off against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Because they stayed behind Columbus, they got a far easier matchup in Montreal.

Every few seasons, a team is going to have the incentive to lose. One day, someone is going to look at the numbers and realize that the team is better off if they lose the last few games. Hopefully, this can be established. The NHL playoff format is a terrible idea. But then, if this is so easy to figure out, why does the league do it?

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Why this format isn’t going anywhere

There are good reasons why the NHL likes this format. They made it this way, after all. Firstly, and most obviously, the league loves rivalries. Rivalries generally spring up due to proximity or historical matchups.

Pittsburgh is a four-hour drive from Washington D.C. but the rivalry between the Penguins and the Capitals is more bitter than Pittsburgh and Columbus or even the Battle of Pennsylvania.

The beginning and end of Toronto and Montreal’s season always used to feature a matchup between the two, and this was no accident. People say that the new format makes rivalries artificial, but they already were.

However, there is no denying that rival teams in the same division lead to far more rivals clashing in the playoffs. Even if the format creates bad incentives and confusing results, sustaining and branding the Battle of California, or Boston and Toronto/Montreal or Pittsburgh and Washington or Boston against anyone leads to more enthused fans.

More enthused fans buy tickets and watch television advertisements. Their eyes remained glued to each and every game. Ultimately, if the league can get fans enthused enough to watch as many games as possible, the rest doesn’t matter.

The other aspect sort of lies in human psychology. Generally, if a team is strong and they have a good record, they are not going to lose spectators as long as they make the playoffs. If that involves playing a low-level bubble team or one of the best in the league, fans will still be excited at this time of year. The playoffs are approaching, and the playoffs are great! Who cares which team they’re up against?

Now, take a team like the New York Islanders. Deservingly or not, they’ve done surprisingly well this year They’re fighting with the defending Stanley Cup champions for the top of the Metro. This is perfect for branding. Even after losing John Tavares, the Isles have miraculously turned into contenders.

Yet, if you look at the conference standings, the Islanders are fifth. They would not have home ice advantage if the playoffs started tomorrow under the old system. Teams like the Bruins and the Leafs will certainly not lose fans because of the unfair system, but the Islanders might gain fans because of it.

Any way you slice it, the new playoff format is in the league’s favor. As fans of the sport, and therefore, fans of the business that runs the largest spectacle of the sport, our money is what keeps the league going. If the league can find a way to get us to hand over our money, though, they are going to do so.

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Really, the playoff format is the beginning of what might be a bigger phenomenon. If you change the way the league works, little-by-little, people’s desire to see a game will override any notion of purity. With this in mind, and with all of the money data and graphs the NHL probably have, the league will probably change more than the playoff format over time.