The NHL playoffs are right around the corner. As exciting races for final spots in the Eastern and Western Conferences shake themselves out on Saturday night, the field of 16 will be set. I do not think that many people will argue against the 16 teams that get into the postseason. But what about some of these potential first round matchups? Is the new playoff system that was introduced last season, really the best for the NHL?
First off, I cannot argue with the NHL for why they wanted to implement a change from the old system. Change just for change sake is not really needed, but the NHL needed to get Winnipeg out of the Eastern Conference. The travel for the Jets was unheralded, since the team was playing in a southeastern US based division. However, it is how the League decided to change everything around that has made things uneven.
It is easier now for Western Conference teams to make the playoffs than it is for teams out east.
The MLB has recently balanced out its two conferences, and now the NHL is the only major North American sport that has unbalanced conferences, with only 14 teams in the west but 16 in the east. Over half of the teams in the west make the playoffs. With only seven teams in each division in the west compared to eight in the east, it is mathematically easier for a team to finish in the top three in its division and earn an automatic playoff berth.
Also, the NHL has deprived fans of more games between rivals. For example, the Flyers and Penguins, one of the game’s best rivalries today, used to play each other six times a season. This year, because of the new schedule format, they only played four times, while both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia played Arizona and Edmonton twice. There is really no need for these teams to play Western Conference teams twice a year and, as a result, some of the games the same-state rivals played against each other were taken away.
And then there is the playoffs. The new alignment does not use the old 1-8 seeding format. Now, teams have to get through their own division before getting to the conference finals. As a result, we could very likely see the top four teams in the Western Conference playing each other in the first round. Matchups like St. Louis vs. Chicago could be a conference final matchup. As of Tuesday, the two teams would be the two and three seeds under the old format. That is a heavyweight first round matchup. Meanwhile, two weaker playoff teams, Calgary and Vancouver, are almost guaranteed to face each other in the first round. Neither Calgary nor
Vancouver look like teams that can make a real run at the Stanley Cup.
How to fix this? It could come through expansion. The NHL may add another east coast team (Quebec City) and a west coast team (Seattle or Las Vegas). Then the NHL could shift a team like Columbus back to the Western Conference again, creating a balance. As far as determining seeds for the playoffs, I would like to see the NHL just get rid of the divisions and have two big conferences. The top eight teams on each side make the playoffs, and there are your seeds as well. Alas, the NHL is likely not going to get rid of divisions.
Don’t get me wrong, the 2015 NHL playoffs are shaping out to be some of the most exciting yet. I would love to see the Blackhawks and Blues slug it out again, but the current system is flawed. All we can do now is sit back and watch. It’s going to be a crazy and exciting spring in the NHL.