Tha Sports Junkies 101

Why the NHL should revert its Playoff Format

Why the NHL should revert its Playoff Format Andy Menarchek/via Flickr


We are two weeks into the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs and it’s been nothing less than exciting. The first round saw a record 18 overtime games played. It also saw plenty of close games. According to the media’s NHL site, 28 of the 42 first-round games were one-goal games.

While nobody can complain about the excitement of the games, there is something that has been bothering people. It’s the league’s current playoff format.


Prior to the 2013-14 season, the NHL decided to change its divisional alignment. The league went from six divisions and five teams per division to four divisions, with the Western Conference having seven teams per division and the Eastern Conference having eight per division.

They also changed their playoff format. Prior to the change, the NHL had a similar format to that of the NBA. The top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the playoffs and then record would determine seeding, which would determine the match-ups (1 seed vs 8 seed, 2 seed vs 7 seed etc…).

While the NHL still allows only the top eight teams to qualify, they changed their seeding system. Prior to 2013-14, the three division winners would be the top three seeds. The last five seeds would be determined by the number of points the teams had and that would determine the playoff series.

In the 2013-14 season, since they changed their divisional alignment, it now allows for only two division winners. The six remaining teams are determined by the number of points they have. The new divisional alignment also allows the possibility of one division having more teams in the playoffs than the other.

However, the most teams a division can have in the playoffs is five. One thing the league did with the new divisional alignment is guarantee that the top three teams from each division make the playoffs. The last two spots belong to the two teams with the most points not in the top three in their division. These are wild card spots.

Playoff series now go as follows:

The division winner with the most points plays the team in the second wild card spot. The second division winner plays the team in the first wild card spot. The teams that finish second and third in the divisions then play each other. And this is where people are having problems.


The league said they went this route with the playoff format because they wanted to create more divisional rivalries. It works, to an extent. As an Anaheim Ducks fan, I’ve come to dislike the Calgary Flames a bit more after their first round series this postseason. However, the problem is that some good match ups are happening way too early.

The example fans are pointing to the most right now is the 2-3 match up from the Metropolitan Division this season. That series was between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They finished the season with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and the entire league.

The Blue Jackets had their greatest season in franchise history, establishing franchise records in wins and points. They also finished with the fourth-best record in all of the NHL. So you had two of the NHL’s top-4 teams play in the first round of the playoffs.

While it may create more of a rivalry between the two teams and fan bases, is it really good for a league to have two of its four best regular season teams meet in the FIRST ROUND of the postseason? That series should’ve at least been a second round series.

Under the old playoff format, Pittsburgh would’ve played Boston and Columbus would’ve played Ottawa in the first round. That would’ve set up a potential Penguins-Blue Jackets second round series. While their first round series this year was nasty and exciting, you can bet battling for a spot in the conference final would’ve made that series even better.


Another series that’s probably happening too early is the Metropolitan’s current second round series. It is a rematch of last year’s second round meeting between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals, like last season, ended the regular season as the top team in the NHL. They are top seed in the entire playoffs, as they would’ve been under the old playoff format. However, the difference is that the earliest they could play Pittsburgh in the old format this postseason would’ve been in the conference final.

In this format, the latest both teams can play each other is in the second round. The reason that’s a problem is because the two current biggest names in the league play on those teams.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have been poster boys for the NHL since they entered the league in 2005-06. The comparisons and debates about who’s better between the two have been ongoing since their rookie years. And every time their teams meet, it is primetime television.

This is the third time their teams meet in the playoffs. However, all three times they’ve met in the second round. Sports commissioners know the best way to market your sport is for your best players to be in the spotlight, especially in the postseason. The deeper a star’s team goes in the playoffs, the more a casual fan will pay attention.

Unfortunately, the NHL has decided that trying to create rivalries is more important than the better teams potentially facing each other deep in the playoffs.


This approach has not only flustered fans, but some players as well. Capitals forward Daniel Winnik stated a few weeks ago that the format is “the stupidest thing ever.” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury believes the new format is “something that’s so weird now.”

Winnik’s teammate, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, believes this format doesn’t always benefit the top teams. “It’s tough because if you have had the best season of any team in the regular season, you feel like you should get some sort of relief going into the playoffs.” His general manager feels the same way.

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan stated, “It’s not a good system when your one wild-card team can cross over and they have kind of, if they perform, a clear path to get to the final. I think the incentive should be the higher team gets the easier path.”

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks the format may not be doing what the league originally intended for it to do. “I don’t think it was designed for this,” Kekalainen said when talking about the first round match up of his team against Pittsburgh. “I don’t think it was intended for this to happen.”


Sports leagues or commissioners can’t create rivalries. Those are born on their own. Whether it’s because your team gets pummeled by one team every year or because the other team is in a neighboring city, fans grow to dislike certain teams more than others. And those teams aren’t always in the same division as your favorite team. I’m an example of that.

Being a Ducks fan since the 1996-97 season, I had to endure to rough years of the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim prior to 2002-03. From their first year in 1993-94 to 2001-02, the Mighty Ducks only made the playoffs twice. Both those times, they were eliminated, and swept, by the Detroit Red Wings. Because of that, I grew up despising the Red Wings.

While those playoff series helped spur my dislike towards Detroit, they didn’t need to be divisional rivals for that dislike to be born.

I’m sure many Ducks fans will tell you that the Red Wings are probably Anaheim’s biggest rival. If not the biggest, then they are right up there with the Los Angles Kings. Why do Ducks fans hate Detroit so much? They’ve met six times in the postseason.

All those meetings occurred under the NHL’s old playoff format.

Including this postseason, Anaheim has played seven different teams since the new playoff format was implemented in 2014. Three of them are from the Pacific Division. However, I would say most Ducks fans would agree that, from those three teams, only Los Angeles is considered a real rival.

Now, I’m not saying the playoffs don’t create rivalries. They can create some really great ones. Just ask Avalanche and Red Wings fans. I just don’t believe a league should change it’s playoff format to try and “create rivalries.” Those can happen on their own.