The NHL started divisional play based on rivalries bringing in more fans and income, but it is unfair to the teams participating.
The NHL has been playing a divisional bracket since the 2013-14 season and it’s been showing it’s multiple flaws since then. Just looking at the standings in the western conference, you have three central division teams in the top 3, and the Minnesota Wild are currently in fifth. Divisional playoff brackets mean that at least one of the top teams in the conference (if not two) will be eliminated in the first round, making the competition much less condensed as the playoffs move on.
Sure, I would love to see the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series as much as anyone. Auston Matthews and John Tavares facing off against Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov could be an amazing matchup. I loved watching the multiple Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins series with Alex Ovechkin facing Sidney Crosby in 2016 and 2017.
However, the Caps vs Pens series in 2017 had me thinking even further that the bracket was unfair. In 2017, the Caps were a juggernaut in the East, and the Pens had to gut out a 7 game series to win despite being the top-two teams in the entire league. In a seeded bracket based on conference standings, they would not have faced off against each other until the Conference Finals.
The NHL does NOT need to add more teams to the playoffs as 16 is more than enough, BUT they have to change the playoffs back to a seeded bracket. Just looking at the standings as a whole, it’s unfair to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers as they will have to play each other in the second round at the latest despite being two of the top five teams in the league, much like the Caps and Pens in 2017. It’s unfair for the best teams in the league to gut out a hard 7-game series in the second round to only be defeated by a team who had rested through an easier half of the bracket.
The proposed changes are not one I think most fans and players will disagree with. It shouldn’t be harder for the best teams to win for the work they did in the regular season, especially when it looks like the President’s Trophy winner will have to play one of the best teams sooner than they should. The playoffs should be hard, and a team should have to gut out hard playoff series to win the Stanley Cup. But the best teams are gone way too soon with the current format and this, in my opinion, is hurting the game.