The new NHL playoff system has outright ruined what used to be the pinnacle of the hockey season thanks to unfair, hypocritical matchup distribution and anticlimactic series.
Like pretty much every professional competition under the sun, the Stanley Cup playoffs used to operate under a simple seeding arrangement – the top eight teams from each of the two conferences reach the postseason, with the best team playing the eighth seed, second seed playing the seventh seed, etc. The elite regular season teams are rewarded for their efforts with easier matchups and home ice advantage while the fringe teams must prove their worth by upsetting the favorites on the road. It’s easy to understand and widely accepted. It makes sense.
So, naturally, the NHL decided to change this formula. Now, there are two divisions within each conference, with the top three teams from each division automatically qualifying for the postseason. The other four spots are determined via wild card, which, strangely enough, works like the old system, with the seventh and eighth best teams from each conference qualifying for a playoff berth and the lower seeded of the two playing the overall best club in that respective conference. If that club resides in the other division, the worse wild card will transfer to that division for the playoffs. From there, each division essentially has a civil war, with the second and third-place finishers battling it out while the top seed and wild card of the division play each other.
If you’ve sustained a migraine from trying to wrap your mind around this, I don’t blame you. These rules are as arbitrary as they are confusing, overcomplicating something that didn’t need fixing and resulting in an abhorrent, broken system that leaves nobody satisfied, bringing us to the snafu that is 2017.
Currently, the top three teams in the Eastern Conference reside in the Metropolitan division, meaning the clubs that formerly would have been the second and third seeds set to meet in the next round, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, must now play each other in the first. Essentially, the NHL has ensured that one of the conference’s top three teams will be immediately eliminated, an unforgivable anticlimax that rushes what should have been a dramatic build-up to the conference semifinals. One of the main competitors and attractions of the postseason will be gone in just over a week. Barring a miraculous upset by a lower-ranked team, itself an exciting prospect to behold, this isn’t how the playoffs should be paced.
What’s really troubling, however, is how the wild card New York Rangers are rewarded by this system despite possessing an inferior point total to their competitors. The Rangers, placing fourth in the stacked Metropolitan division, normally would have been the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, but now, as the more accomplished of the two wild cards, they transfer over to the vastly weaker Atlantic division for the playoffs. While New York’s division rivals, the conference’s strongest talent, pulverize each other, the Rangers get to comfortably steamroll lesser teams, notwithstanding their lower regular season placement. The better clubs now have a brutal path to the Stanley Cup while the lowly wild card can safely coast to the conference finals.
If that doesn’t raise an eyebrow, consider this: the NHL designed this abomination of a system to encourage divisional rivalries. With New York now poised to invade and dominate a separate division from its own, the opposite is now true. Now it only makes sense for teams in elite divisions to lose intentionally in order to gain a wild card and migrate over to a less competitive field. The NHL hasn’t inspired rivalries. It has hypocritically discouraged them.
One can only wonder what the NHL was thinking when it devised this convoluted catastrophe of a playoff system, but it’s visible proof that what isn’t broken doesn’t need to be fixed. This grand experiment of misguided innovation has failed. It’s time to return to tradition and end this unnecessarily controversial scheme that inspires halfhearted efforts by punishing regular season excellence.