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A lot has been said lately about the current NHL playoff format. There has been a lot of negative sentiment over the structure we use now, and I want to give you my spin on it as we approach the playoffs. Don't forget to check out my Eastern Conference and Western Conference playoff previews. A third team, the Boston Bruins, qualified last night for the 2018 postseason.
For simplicity, I don't think the NHL wants to change the playoff format this summer, and then change it again in a few years when the NHL expands to Seattle. I would imagine that we are sticking with the current playoff system until we have 32 teams, and the divisions are re-aligned.
Personally, I don't have a big issue with the current playoff format. I think that if you want to win a Stanley Cup, you are going to have to go through good teams. If you play those good teams in the first two rounds as opposed to the Conference Finals or Stanley Cup Final, you still have to win 16 games to capture the ultimate prize.
My preference, however, would be to return the playoff format should to the 1 vs. 8 first-round match-up format we had before the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. I think the best teams in the regular season should be rewarded with the lower teams among qualifying teams in first-round match-ups.
No matter what, the playoffs are not going to expand. We are staying with a 16-team playoff, and that will give eight playoff spots to each conference. There will be nothing good about saying the top 16 teams in the NHL make the playoffs If that were the case, why do we even have divisions or conferences? Everyone should be in the same conference and play every team twice a year in that scenario to make things even.
I also don't agree with the notion that we throw away the conference thing and just go #1 record vs 16 record, #2 vs. #15, and so on. The travel would be exhausted for everyone involved. Keep the conferences separate, with the winners still meeting in the Stanley Cup Final.
Personally, I am in favor of the four-team divisions (would give us eight divisions, four in each conference). If you missed that article, you can check it out here. I think you then give each division winner a playoff spot, and then four Wild Card spots make up the rest of the eight teams per conference.
This system would reward good teams with a strong division leader, as they can still make the playoffs. You also aren't forcing "bad" teams into playoff spots like you do now. You force a team to win a division, or be a top team in the rest of its conference to make the playoffs, instead of giving away playoff spots to average teams in weak divisions.
So, how do you seed your playoffs in this scenario? The division winners get home-ice advantage in the first round. I know we could see a case where the second-best team in Division A (metaphorical teams here) is better than the best team in Division C, but there has to be some reason you even have division. If you don't want to reward division winners, then let's just have one big Western Conference.
Then, you give the best division winner the lowest Wild Card team. Reward the best team in the conference with the worst playoff team from that conference. Second best division winner gets the second lowest Wild Card team, and so on.
It would look a little something like this:
Division A winner vs. Wild Card #4 (Wild Card team with worst record)
Division B winner vs. Wild Card #3
Division C winner vs. Wild Card #2
Division D winner vs. Wild Card #1 (Wild Card team with best record)
After the first round, you go back to highest seed remaining plays lowest seed remaining. This would eliminate the unwanted second round match-ups of a really good team playing a really good team.
This is the best case scenario in my mind, as everyone is treated fairly. There would be a better mix of teams in the playoffs, and we would get to see those playoff series between the "better teams" later in the playoffs, which it seems is the driving force for this whole conversation.
Let's say we stick with the four division format for a minute. The current playoff systems would have to be altered for people to get what they want, even though I'm okay the way it is right now. I think you need to eliminate the mini brackets the NHL has created with the true playoff bracket. To counter this, the NHL should go back to the old format where the team with the best record that advances to the second round of the playoffs should face the team with the worst record that also advances.
At the end of the day, someone who misses the playoffs will think they deserve to be in the playoffs every year. Every season, 15 teams (soon to be 16) don't make the playoffs. I think you could make a case for a different playoff system every year to fit your favorite team in the playoffs. This is what I would do to make things a little bit more balanced for the entirety of the NHL.