Stanley Cup Playoffs: Why the current format is great

BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 09: The Stanley Cup is seen at The Great Wall on September 9, 2018 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Emmanuel Wong/NHLI via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 09: The Stanley Cup is seen at The Great Wall on September 9, 2018 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Emmanuel Wong/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Stanley Cup Playoff format has been getting some less than stellar reviews. Here is why the level of criticism it receives is not deserved.

Spring has finally sprung in most of the NHL-viewing world, and with it has come one of its most cherished traditions. No, I am not talking about getting back outdoors, cleaning out one’s house or being able to wear T-shirts without freezing to death. Rather, I’m talking about the annual whining about the Stanley Cup Playoffs format. Just as the flowers begin to bloom, hockey fans around the world excoriate the NHL for the stupidity of the postseason format.

If you are new to hockey, here is a quick refresher on the playoff format. The NHL is split into two conferences – Eastern and Western. Each conference has two divisions – Atlantic and Metropolitan in the East, Central and Pacific in the West.

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The top three teams in each division receive automatic berths in the playoffs, along with two wild-cards that are the next-highest point-getters in each conference. This leads to a situation similar to March Madness – four quadrants with four teams each that fight to reach the “Final Four” (the conference finals).

The final four consists of two teams in each conference, one from each quadrant, who play to become conference champions, before advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. That much is still reminiscent of the old ‘1 vs 8’ format the NHL had before realignment.

Since this new format was implemented in 2014, there have been two major criticisms leveled at it. First, it punishes good teams. Second, it leads to repetitive matchups with the same teams always playing against each other.

These criticisms are not without merit. To start with the first one, the NHL regular season, at 82 games, is a marathon, spanning over six months in length. Teams are already starting to get burnt out before the two month war known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.

This would be worth it if the regular season rewarded its best teams with favorable matchups, but for the past three seasons, the top two regular season teams have resided in the same division. As a result, many of the top teams will be eliminated in earlier rounds than they may deserve to.

This year, the Atlantic Division has been arguably the most competitive in the NHL. As of April 1, the Tampa Bay Lightning are by far the best team in the league, the Boston Bruins rank third, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are sixth. All three will likely pass 100 points for the second straight season.

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Ideally, all three teams would be in the second round, and two of the three would be in the semifinals. But since they all play in the same division, only two can advance to round two, and only one at most will represent the division in the Eastern Conference finals.

As a Washington Capitals fan, I felt many of the same frustrations when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning squads would be eliminated by a Pittsburgh Penguins team they should not have faced until later on. What was the point of winning all of those regular season games in the first place?

Maybe watching my favorite team win the Stanley Cup last year cleared things up for me, because now I actually have a deep appreciation for this format. The championship was made that much sweeter because of the struggles they went through, and I bet the players feel the same way.

Additionally, the argument that this format does not reward the best regular season teams is bogus. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Whether it’s in the first round or the Stanley Cup Final, it really does not make a difference.

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I think one of the reasons this has become such an issue is because fans have put such an emphasis on when a team is eliminated. But if the Maple Leafs lose to the Bruins in the first round instead of the second or third round, does it really make you happier as a fan?

The ultimate goal of the playoffs is to win the Stanley Cup. This means every year, there is one team that is successful, and thirty teams that are not. That is the ugly beauty of professional sports and especially of the NHL.

Some might argue teams are at a disadvantage because when they have to play better teams earlier, having to play a potential third-round matchup in round one leaves them with less going forward. But recent history dispels this notion.

In both 2016 and 2017, the Penguins eliminated the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, perhaps a round earlier than they should have needed to. Despite that, they went on to win the Stanley Cup in both seasons.

Last year, the Winnipeg Jets (the second best team in the NHL) had to play the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in a grueling seven-game second-round series. While they were eliminated in five by Vegas right after, most viewers would argue the Jets were the better team in the series.

Also last year, the Lightning had a similar task in the first two rounds as they will this year, having to play Boston in round two. They dispelled them in five, before losing a hard-fought series to the Capitals. I doubt their earlier matchups are the reason they lost in the conference finals.

Overall, while it can be annoying as a fan to see a potential conference final a round or two early, if your team does lose, then they did not deserve to win the Cup this year, which is what matters. Tough, but it is what it is.

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The other criticism, that the matchups are repetitive, is also a fair point. The Capitals and Penguins look to be on a crash course for a fourth (!) straight playoff meeting, while San Jose versus Vegas and Toronto versus Boston are basically already confirmed for the second straight year.

This is one point, however, we just have to agree to disagree on. I love the rivalries that are borne from the playoff format. Familiarity breeds contempt, after all. Penguins versus Blue Jackets and Predators versus Jets are amongst the rivalries formed because of the postseason format.

The NHL desperately needs big-time rivalries to expand their popularity in the United States, and this format is creating exactly that. Fantastic work! Now, while I am a fan of this playoff format, especially over the old 1 versus 8 system, there is one suggestion that I have become a big fan of. Via Down Goes Brown of the Athletic (subscription required), the first two rounds would be like the traditional 1-8 version, but then:

"Here’s where things get interesting. Once we’re down to four teams, we re-seed again. The highest-ranked remaining team pairs off with the lowest-ranked one, with the other two teams facing off in the other matchup — regardless of conference.We take the final four teams, shake them up, and give them whatever matchups they deserve. We could have teams from difference conferences playing each other in the semifinals.And that means we could have two teams from the same conference meeting in the Stanley Cup final."

Beautiful. Take the rivalries that are the best product of the NHL playoffs, and make them mean even more. It is absolutely perfect. Imagine Capitals-Penguins or Maple Leafs-Bruins as a Stanley Cup Final. The playoffs would be appointment viewing across America.

Outside of this, however, I have not seen another structure that I prefer to the current one. 1-8 is boring, and the idea of teams choosing their first-round opponents goes directly against the nature of most NHL athletes.

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Ultimately, while many fans do not like the current NHL playoff format, I love it. Sure, it sucks to see your team eliminated, but that just makes that ultimate achievement even more rewarding. Trust me on that.

And from a business standpoint, the format does more to create rivalries than anything else, which is music to the league’s ears. This is how they can continue to grow in the United States and around the world.

What do you think? Do you like the current NHL playoff format? What system would you prefer? Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the final week of the regular season!