The Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon to move onto the second round of the NHL playoffs. However, the prize for the Capitals was a meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team with the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
Understanding the lunacy requires a trip down memory lane back to the 2013-14 season, when the NHL underwent realignment, placing the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings in the Eastern Conference, and the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference.
Under the realignment, the NHL switched from six divisions to four, including 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western. Each division became its own mini-conference in the postseason, with the seeding changing accordingly.
This season has seen the most drastic endgame from the change, wreaking havoc on should-be matchups and creating matchups that pitted hockey juggernauts against each other in the opening rounds.
The first round matchups under the current format included—
1. Washington Capitals vs. 8. Philadelphia Flyers
2. Florida Panthers vs. 7. New York Islanders
Metropolitan Division 2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Metropolitan Division 3. New York Rangers
Atlantic Division 2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Atlantic Division 3. Detroit Red Wings
And in the west —
1. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Minnesota Wild
2. Anaheim Ducks vs. 7. Nashville Predators
Central Division 2. St. Louis Blues vs. Central Division 3. Chicago Blackhawks
Pacific Division 2. Los Angeles Kings vs. Pacific Division 3. San Jose Sharks
Rather than creating the fairest matchups, the NHL has created a system in which teams are almost always competing intra-divisionally in the postseason. This has resulted in the New York Rangers playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in three consecutive postseasons.
The aim has been to create rivalries, but the cost has been fans losing interest in teams outside of their respective divisions, or tiring of repeated matchups.
For the long-term, it doesn’t appear feasible for the NHL to move along with the current format. As long as the same teams continue to make the postseason somewhat consistently, we will see many repeat matchups and few new and exciting ones.
Atlantic Division teams will grow foreign to Metropolitan Division squads in addition to the same for Central and Pacific Divisions. We won’t see exciting first round matchups that create rivalries, we will see rivalries manufactured by the NHL.
As for the short term, this postseason is as strong an example of the negativity the current format brings to the table as any. The playoff matchups are listed above, but let’s take a look at what the playoff matchups would have been in the old playoff format where division winners got the 1 and 2 seed:
- Washington Capitals vs. 8. Detroit Red Wings
- Florida Panthers vs. 7. Philadelphia Flyers
- Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 6. Tampa Bay Lightning
- New York Rangers vs. 5. New York Islanders
In the Eastern Conference there are drastic differences. The Capitals would have had an easier first round matchup, playing the worst team in the East rather than the surging Flyers. Florida would have been handed the Flyers instead of the superior Islanders, rewarding the Panthers for winning the division.
Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay would both suffer under the old format, as Pittsburgh would receive a less favorable matchup in Tampa Bay, and Tampa Bay would lose the home ice that was handed to them because their division wasn’t particularly competitive this season. The Rangers-Islanders matchup would give the Rangers home ice for finishing ahead of the Lightning, while also proving that the old system invites rivalry matchups into the fold.
- Dallas Stars vs. 8. Minnesota Wild
- Anaheim Ducks vs. 7. Nashville Predators
- Louis Blues vs. 6. San Jose Sharks
- Chicago Blackhawks vs. 5. Los Angeles Kings
The top two matchups in the West would remain the same, while the Blues would get the Sharks rather than the Blackhawks and the Blackhawks would get the Kings rather than the Blues. The NHL would lose a rivalry matchup in Kings-Sharks, but gain one of their favorite rivalries in Blackhawks-Kings, while also fairly rewarding the Blackhawks for finishing ahead of the Kings in the regular season.
Perhaps more important than the first round is the implications the current format has on the later rounds. Rather than re-seeding after the first round, the current format follows an intra-division bracket style.
This has resulted in the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals, having to face the second best team in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The matchup will be a treat for general NHL fans, but would be more drama-filled as an Eastern Conference Final.
The Capitals and Penguins are being punished for the success of the Metropolitan Division, while the Lightning will face the inferior Islanders. The matchup likely won’t rate well for the NHL, while also clearly failing to best represent the standings of the teams.
With re-seeding the Capitals would get the worst ranked team left heading into the second round, while the next best team would get the next worst. With the Islanders defeat of the Panthers, Washington continues their rivalry against the Islanders in a non-manufactured way, while the Penguins would face the Lightning in a clash of talented squads with loads of depth and speed.
The Western Conference would see the Stars get the worst team remaining and continuing on, rather than the Stars having to face the Blues and the Ducks or Predators facing the Sharks.
Nobody wants to play San Jose who has been awfully good this season, but Dallas would likely choose a matchup against San Jose over a matchup against the team that bounced the defending champion Blackhawks, for example.
Overall, the current playoff format rewards teams for belonging to weak divisions, while punishing teams for being in strong ones. The Washington Capitals have the most reason to gripe, but many teams have what to complain about in the current system.
If the NHL insists on manufacturing rivalries in their playoff format, a fair compromise would be to re-seed the league standings after the first round to give the best teams the easiest matchups.