Commentary: NHL had best playoff, time to go back to it

The National Hockey League is moving to its second round, and already, we’ve seen some compelling series and some mild upsets.

But that’s always been the case in the NHL, which has the most compelling postseason in professional sports, a two-month endurance test to determine who hoists the Stanley Cup in early June.

However, a lot of the compelling hockey shouldn’t have been as necessary – especially this early – with too many great team vs. great team matchups earlier in the playoffs than needed, and in this year’s case, two teams that were low seeds playing each other in the opening round.

Two years ago, the NHL tried to fix something that wasn’t broken by going to a playoff system based on divisional play in the first two rounds, slapped a Band-Aid on it by creating wild cards and a double-crossover to not punish teams for the sin of being in the wrong geographical grouping, and ruined what an outstanding playoff.

There is one argument for the new system – reduced travel. That also certainly was a factor in the ECHL also going to a division-based playoff system this year, but that league is going back to six divisions and conference-based playoffs next year. The AHL, the other coast-to-coast pro hockey league in North America, also has conference-based playoffs. And those two leagues don’t have the mega-budgets, TV contracts or teams flying charters that NHL teams have.

It’s a longer trip, in hours, for a centrally-located ECHL team like Indy to go to nearly all of its potential 2016 playoff foes on a bus than it is for the Nashville Predators to fly to Edmonton or the Anaheim Ducks to fly to Chicago.

So, if conference-based playoffs work in minor pro hockey – and worked very well in the NHL for many years – then what are the reasons for fixing a system that wasn’t broken in the NHL?

Well, there are two – reduced travel and renewed rivalries, which makes for compelling television.

But the Stanley Cup playoffs are compelling television no matter who is playing. The Boston-Vancouver series in 2011 wasn’t a traditional rivalry, but there was enough bad blood between the two teams by Game 2 to make it feel like a legendary Boston-Montreal or Chicago-Detroit series. That was compelling television.

NBC – the U.S. national rightsholder – doesn’t need first-round “rivalries” to sell hockey to American fans. But it certainly wouldn’t be against a system that re-creates the old Patrick Division – which has been the axis of U.S. TV coverage the last 30 years no matter the rightsholder – and basically guarantees one of its teams will make the conference final. CBC/SportsNet definitely doesn’t need it to drive ratings.

But what the new format does is guarantee that, at least in NBC’s eyes, the “right” teams make it deep in the tournament. U.S. television has generally focused its coverage on about six teams – and four of them have always been the core of the old Patrick Division (Penguins, Rangers, Capitals, Flyers). It wouldn’t matter if the Flyers and Rangers missed the playoffs every year or if the Kings and Lightning played in the Stanley Cup Final 10 straight years, you’re still likely to see the two former teams on NBC’s Sunday Game of the Week (and their national playoff coverage on the peacock) than you would be the two latter ones. By grouping them all into one division, the NHL can almost guarantee one of those teams will make it through at least three rounds of the playoffs. It’s difficult to show the country Pittsburgh vs. New York every year, and then suddenly have all of those teams gone early in the tournament, as happened in 2011 when the final four was Boston (a team that nominally gets covered by NBC), Tampa Bay, Vancouver and San Jose (three teams who are rumors to U.S. television audiences). It’s no surprise that the push back to divisional play came after that year.

However, the purpose of a knockout/playdown tournament is not to manufacture “good matchups” for television, or the “right” matchups that a network can promote. It is to do one thing – to determine a champion. Period. And the NHL had, from 1994-2013, the best system in professional sports for doing so.

Four rounds of best-of-7. Conference-based scheduling with the top eight teams making it to the dance, and reseeding after each round.

It did a couple of things. First, it rewarded teams for having a good regular season. The reseeding after each round was a stroke of genius – no longer would you have a case, like in the NBA playoffs, when a top seed would get ousted and the second round would be 2 vs. 3 and 5 vs. 8. There was a substantial reward for winning the division (a top-three seed) and an even greater reward for finishing higher.

It also generated compelling hockey, with a substantial amount of variety. With two 15-team conferences, there would be a few regular repeats (Boston and Montreal, for example, seemed to play each other annually regardless of format), but a substantial amount of differentiation in the playoffs. And, given hockey is a game of matchups, a team couldn’t load up to try to win a matchup against the one outstanding team in its division, because it would only have a 14 percent chance of meeting that team in the first round, and a 25 percent chance of meeting that team in the second. In a divisional setting, that chance is dramatically increased.

It wasn’t perfect, but it ensured that if a lower-seeded team won a title – like the Kings did in 2012 – it would have to beat the best team remaining at each round, and not necessarily benefit from the “bracket clearout” that we see every year in the NCAA tournament, and to a lesser degree, the NBA. And if a higher-seeded team won, it earned the right to play the lowest-seeded remaining team due to a good regular season.

That’s the best way to determine a champion. And that’s the point.

One could argue the NHL was even better from the mid-1970s through 1980, when it played a fully-balanced schedule and seeded teams leaguewide. But best-of-3 first-round series tended to yield some crazy results.

The NHL’s worst era – at least for parity – was the era where the playoffs were entirely division-based – a team would play the bulk of its schedule inside the division, and then not see anyone outside its division until the conference finals. From 1980-81 through 1992-93, the NHL had such a format, and to say there was no variety would be an understatement. Only five franchises in that 13-year span won the Stanley Cup – the Oilers won five, the Islanders three (their first Cup came in the final year of league-wide seeding), the Canadiens and Penguins two each and the Flames were the interlopers in 1989. Boil it down further into conference champs, and there was still little parity. Only five teams – NYI (4x), Montreal (3x), Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (2x each) advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in that 13-year span from the Wales Conference. There was slightly more parity in the Campbell Conference, which was Edmonton (6 Final appearances, 5 Cups) , Minnesota and Calgary (2 each, but just one Cup between them), Vancouver, Los Angeles and Chicago (which all lost in their only trips to the Cup Final).

If one would like to state that was the era of dynasties before the salary cap, you’re correct. But the cap wasn’t put in place until after the 2004-05 lockout, so we have 11 years of data to draw from. In those 11 seasons, the Eastern (former Wales) Conference produced eight different teams going to the Stanley Cup Final, with New Jersey being the only repeat conference champ (four times – 1995, 2000, 2001, 2003). Also appearing were the Rangers, Panthers, Flyers, Capitals, Sabres, Hurricanes and Lightning. The Western Conference had a little less variety, but still had five conference champions in 11 years – Detroit (4x), Colorado (2x), Dallas (2x), Anaheim and Calgary. That 11-year span produced six different Stanley Cup championship franchises, with New Jersey and Detroit winning three each, and Colorado two.

With the salary cap and the conference-based system, we saw similar parity – the eight years of that system post-lockout produced seven different Cup champions, with only Chicago a repeat winner, and 12 different franchises taking 16 possible Stanley Cup Final berths. Only Detroit and Pittsburgh (in 2008 & 2009), Chicago (2010 and 2013) and Boston (2011 and 2013) made the Cup Final twice in that system.

The variety came in part due to the fact that the same teams weren’t matching up with the same foes year after year, producing almost always the same results. The opposite system – one that had great divisional meetings early – tended to yield the same foes year after year, with predictable results.

While time will tell if going back to a divisional system will yield similar results as before (I’m hoping it will still produce variety), the last two years of going back to a division-based system has exposed more than a few warts. First off, the regular season means less – with matchups basically locked in with weeks to go in the season, the 2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings gained little from pushing themselves close to the end of the season to gain higher seeds. Second, it basically punishes teams for being in a good division. Look at the Western Conference this year, where there was a strong division (the Central) and a comparatively weak one (the Pacific). The same was the case last year in the Eastern Conference, where the Rangers skated through a weak division while the Atlantic Division teams brawled in the other half of the bracket and took out the top team in the East.

This year, things were a bit more absurd in the West, where five of the top seven teams were in the same division. The wild card ensured that all five would make it (instead of, say, Los Angeles getting in over Winnipeg, which would’ve happened in a true division-based system). But Calgary finished third in the Pacific Division with a worse record than both wild cards, meaning that instead of facing one of the division champions, the Flames faced the team with the fifth-best record in the conference.

The second argument for the new division-based system is to reduce travel – Gary Bettman’s original proposal would’ve created four “conferences” – in that scenario, this year, Los Angeles makes the playoffs and Winnipeg doesn’t. That made more sense when Detroit was traveling to Vancouver and San Jose on a regular basis. But doesn’t make as big of a difference with off-days between games and teams that fly charter.

But with the wild cards and double-crossover (and an Eastern Conference division that stretches from Ottawa and Toronto to Miami and Tampa Bay and skips over several hundred miles of another division), the travel really isn’t mitigated. Anaheim’s reward for winning the conference was a flight to Winnipeg, which isn’t much longer than a flight to its division rival Calgary, which it would’ve had. The only bad-travel series this year would’ve been Chicago-Vancouver in the first round. And, had things gone differently in the final week, it’s conceivable that there would’ve been St. Louis-Los Angeles and Anaheim-Minnesota first-round series under the new system – certainly not exactly mitigating travel.

Here’s the way the playoffs matched up vs. the way they would have in a conference-based system:

2013

  • Eastern Conference actual: (2)PIT v (7)CBJ; (5)NYR v (6)PHI; (1)BOS v (8)DET; (3)TB v (4)MTL.
  • Eastern Conference in conference system: (1)BOS v (8)DET; (2)PIT v (7)CBJ; (3)TB v (6)PHI; (4)MTL v (5)NYR
  • Basically, the conference final of MTL/NYR would’ve been a first-round matchup. Boston & Pittsburgh both won, and the second round would’ve either been BOS/PHI and PIT/NYR (using actual results) or BOS/NYR and PIT/TB. Three of the top four teams in the East were in the same division. Boston’s reward for winning the President’s Trophy was playing the second-highest remaining seed, rather than the lowest.
  • Western Conference actual: (2)COL v (7)MIN; (3)STL v (5)CHI; (1)ANA v (8)DAL; (4)SJS v (6)LAK
  • Western Conference in conference system: (1)ANA v (8)DAL; (2)COL v (7)MIN; (3)STL v (6)LAK; (4)SJS v (5)CHI
  • Likely would’ve yielded a similar result. Anaheim & Minnesota won, assume Kings would’ve beaten Blues but that would’ve been a tougher matchup than Sharks. Sharks/Hawks a tossup. Second round would’ve been ANA/MIN, and then STL/LAK winner vs. SJS/CHI winner – again, the eventual conference final would’ve happened in the earlier rounds.

This year (2014-15), things were really absurd because of the Pacific division.

  • Eastern Conference actually plays out the same, but the second round would likely be different. (1)NYR v (8)PIT; (4)WSH v (5)NYI; (2)MTL v (7)OTT; (3)TB v (6)DET. Assuming Detroit finishes off Tampa, the President’s Trophy winner will, for the second year in a row, have a tougher second-round matchup than another team in its own conference. Again, the reward for a good regular season is to have a stronger second-round foe than the team that won the other division.
  • Western Conference was bizarre. Actual: (1)ANA v (7)WIN; (5)VAN v (8)CGY; (2)STL v (6)MIN; (3)NSH v (4)CHI
  • Western Conference under old system: (1)ANA v (8)CGY; (2)STL v (7)WIN; (3)NSH v (6)MIN; (4)CHI v (5)VAN
  • Looks like the ANA/CGY matchup that should’ve been the opener will happen in the second round. Just looking at relative strength, it’s hard to see Winnipeg or Vancouver winning their first-round series, and hard to see Minnesota losing to Nashville. So, the likely second round would’ve been ANA/MIN & STL/CHI, or ANA/CHI and STL/NAS. The Calgary-Vancouver series should never have happened in the first round, and exposes a serious flaw in the system. Neither should the Chicago-Nashville or St. Louis-Minnesota ones.

It’s hard to come up with an argument that the current hockey playoff system is the best method for determining an actual champion. Yes, it creates compelling television, but it diminishes the importance of the regular season and instead rewards teams for loading up to win one particular matchup. And it will likely lead to less variety in winners and, therefore, a less-interesting Stanley Cup playoff, rather than the best one in sports.

It’s time for the NHL to unfix what wasn’t broken and return to its pre-2014 playoff system – the best in pro sports.