According to a report by TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, the NHL and the NHL Players Association have agreed to stick with the current divisional playoff format through at least the 2019-2020 season.
That news may come as a disappointment to many hockey fans, who have largely been critical of the current format ever since it was put into place in the 2013-2014 season.
Format Punishes Teams in Strong Divisions
That was the year that the NHL realigned to four divisions. When that took place, the playoff system was also updated, with the top three teams from each divisions making the playoffs along with two wild card teams in each conference.
For the first round of the playoffs, the second and third seeds in each division play each other, while each division winner gets a wild card team. There is no longer any reseeding after the first round.
The problem, as many fans and pundits see it, is that this format effectively punishes teams that are part of a strong division by forcing them to face off even though they may be among the best teams in their conference.
That’s a situation that could play out again this season, most notably in the Atlantic Division. The NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning are running away with the division crown, following by the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But while both Boston and Toronto are among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, they will have to play each other in the first round of the playoffs.
“What you’re grinding 82 games for during a season is to finish as high as you can so you can have that advantage come playoffs,” Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos told TSN. “I don’t think that’s an advantage to Toronto or Boston to be what could be the top three teams in the whole league in one division and then have to play that team in the first round. I don’t think that’s right.”
On Twitter, LeBrun said that “the matter will continue to be discussed,” but that the earliest potential date for a change to the NHL playoff format would be the 2020-2021 season.
The NHL and the NHLPA have agreed to a one-year extension of the current divisional alignment and playoff format. The matter will continue to be discussed between the two sides moving forward. So earliest change would be for 2020-21 if/when there is change.
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) April 3, 2019
Conference Playoff Structure Protects Top Teams
Few sports use playoff systems that perfectly seed every team based on their regular season records, as North American professional sports typically feature two conferences (or, in the case of MLB, two leagues) that each play down to a champion before meeting the winner of the opposing conference in the finals.
While it’s possible for one conference to be much stronger than another – the NBA has dealt with this for many years thanks to the recent dominance of the Western Conference – the top teams will still stay apart for at least a round or two when all of the playoff teams from one side of the league are grouped together.
The addition of a divisional element makes the NHL playoff format more problematic. When several strong teams are in the same division, they are forced to play each other, rather than feast on weaker teams from elsewhere in the conference in the first round.
The challenging playoff bracket for Boston and Toronto could be pushing down their playoff odds. While the Lighting are a clear 21/10 favorite to win the Stanley Cup according to William Hill, Boston is listed at 9/1, while Tornto is relatively far down the board at 20/1.