stanley cup playoffs

Should the NHL Seed Playoff Teams Like the NBA?

Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in front of Marian Gaborik #10 of the New York Rangers
Marian Gaborik and Kris Letang.

Here are the eight teams with the most points in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, without regard to division:

1. Rangers - 95 points
2. Penguins - 91 points
3. Flyers - 89 points
4. Devils - 87 points
5. Bruins - 83 points
6. Senators - 82 points
7. Panthers - 81 points
8. Capitals - 78 points

Notice anything about the top four teams? They all come from the same division. These teams haven’t all played the same number of games, but for argument’s sake, imagine for a moment that these teams finished in this order in terms of points to end the season. The Rangers, with the most points, would finish with the top seed. But because of the way the NHL seeds its teams — guaranteeing the division winners the top three seeds — the Penguins would get the No. 4 seed, with the Flyers getting the No. 5 seed, and so on.

This means that should the higher seeds all win in the first round, the teams with the two best records — teams seeded first and fourth — would play in the second round. And consider the battle for positioning between the fifth and sixth seeds. The fifth seed would face the team with the second-best record in the conference, while the sixth seed would play the team with the seventh-best record in the conference. That hardly seems fair.

There are certain aspects of the NHL’s playoff format that we like, in particular the way teams are re-seeded after every round. The higher seeds should have the easier path to the Cup, and pulling off a first-round upset shouldn’t necessarily mean you inherit the the opponent the team you defeated would have played. (For instance, in a straightforward bracket, in which the 1 seed plays the 8 seed and so on, if the 8 seed pulls off an upset, they’d play the winner of the 4-5 series. The NHL’s way, they’d play the 2 seed — assuming they didn’t get upset themselves. It’s only right that the 8 seed still has the most difficult path, and that the 2 seed now has the easiest of the remaining teams.)

But there’s one aspect of the NBA’s playoff format we wouldn’t mind the NHL adopting: Give the top four seeds to the three division winners and the best second-place finisher, and order those teams in terms of record. Essentially, it allows for the possibility that the two best teams in a conference could come from the same division, and seeds them accordingly, while also guaranteeing they won’t meet in the second round. It still rewards a team for winning its division — the Panthers, based on the current standings, would get the 4 seed, even though they’re seventh in points — but gives priority to a team that’s had a better season, but has played in a tougher division. The NHL could continue to give home-ice advantage to the higher seed (as opposed to the team with the better record, as the NBA does), but it’s the matchups that concern us more. It’s a compromise that can better handle a situation like the one developing in the East this year. At the very least, it guarantees that seeds 1 through 4 have descending point totals. Here’s what the seedings would look like under this plan, based on the current standings:

1. Rangers - 95 points
2. Penguins - 91 points
3. Bruins - 83 points
4. Panthers - 81 points
5. Flyers - 89 points
6. Devils - 87 points
7. Senators - 82 points
8. Capitals - 78 points

(By the way, this seems like a good time to point out what could happen if the NHL were to switch to the four-conference format the NHLPA rejected earlier this season. Under that plan, two rounds of conference playoffs take place, before the four conference winners meet in the semifinals. Among other things, this would mean that a team could miss the playoffs despite having a better record than a team that qualified. Of course, this can also happen in the current two-conference format, but using the current standings, the Capitals — who’d be in a division with the Rangers, Pens, Flyers, and Devils — wouldn’t qualify, but the Sabres, with 75 points, would. But much more bothersome is the fact that the top four teams currently playing in what we call the Eastern Conference would have to play each other in the first two rounds, while the teams with the fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and ninth-best records in what we now call the Eastern Conference would make up a bracket of their own.)

Perhaps these are the ramblings of a man who realized this week that the team he follows — which has for some time occupied the top spot in the East — may very well be bumped down to fourth, despite potentially finishing with the second-best record in the conference. But a tweak to the seeding seems like a reasonable compromise between rewarding teams with stellar records and rewarding teams for winning their divisions.

Should the NHL Seed Playoff Teams Like the NBA?