Changing the NHL Playoffs

A few weeks back my @dasbobworld (my erstwhile brother-in-law) and I had one of those sitting around discussions where we fixed the world. The world in question was the NHL. Neither of us like the fact that the East gets one less team into the second season and the potential of Quebec City getting a franchise along with Las Vegas means the unbalanced playoff schedule will continue for a while. This led us to wonder what a league wide playoff would look like and whether it could be considered a feasible option. The WNBA is trying it out this year and the AHL currently uses it as a format so the idea itself is not all that odd.

This is what a league wide playoff format would look like this year:

Rank Rank
1 Washington Boston 16
2 Dallas Detroit 15
3 St. Louis Nashville 14
4 Pittsburgh Philadelphia 13
5 Chicago Tampa 12
6 Anaheim San Jose 11
7 Florida NY Islanders 10
8 Los Angeles NY Rangers 9

 

Notice anything? I did.

Boston

As a Montreal Canadians fan nothing makes me giddier than seeing the Bruins tossed from the playoffs … except when the unbalanced format means they are tossed by a team six points behind them in the standings. Every team in the playoffs has at least 96 points save one: Minnesota with 87. Boston has 93. This discrepancy is abhorrent. Look at the wins: 42 versus 38. The difference is four significant wins (their shootout balance is pretty much the same so at least we don’t have that bucket of worms this year although Boston did win one more). Minnesota ended the season on a five game losing streak and they are in the playoff picture this year simply by virtue of Colorado being even worse. Having a team bounced by someone that far behind is not a good sight to behold and is pretty much the worst-case scenario of the current format.

Start Times

One of the reasons the NHL loves the east/west divide is for start times. Western teams hate playing games early in the day and the league doesn’t want teams to have to change up their routine so that we can watch quality hockey. Unless you happen to be from the East or the Central in which case you can start a couple of hours after waking up. In 2014/15, six games started at 3 p.m. EDT and all but one of those games featured two teams from the Central time zone and the odd team out was Anaheim who lives in the Pacific. If you’re from the Midwest and your game was on the weekend you started at 2 p.m. central for NBC. Think that was harsh? Try the East. There was one game that started at 12 p.m. and two that started at 12:30 p.m. and Washington would have played all of them if it weren’t for those pesky Rangers. In fact, let’s take a look at Washington’s first round series against the Islanders for start times:

Wednesday, April 15 7 p.m.
Friday, April 17 7 p.m.
Sunday, April 19 Noon
Tuesday, April 21 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 23 7 p.m.
Saturday, April 25 3 p.m.
Monday, April 27 7:30 p.m.

Not exactly the picture of consistency the NHL would like you to believe happens. The fact is simple: television, especially NBC, dictates start times more than time zones do.

Travel

The major hue and cry against a league wide playoff format would undoubtedly be travel. The organizational requirements plus time zone changes would be difficult to deal with at the best of times. Too bad the AHL does it regularly. The AHL western conference contains Utica and Toronto for crying out loud. This also ignores the fact between the 1974/75 and 1981/82 seasons the NHL used the exact format I am proposing and they did it without private jets.

However, most of the travel complaints from Detroit and Columbus stemmed from regular season play, not playoffs. Most teams don’t seem to mind and if the league was really worried about unfair travel leading to unfair rounds then a simple switch to 2-3-2 solves a lot of the problems, unless you recognize that there are no real problems.

Out of the eight series to be played this year exactly five are in the same time zone, two are separated by one (and yes the Red Wings have to play in CDT once again), and only one would be between cities on separate coasts (Kings/Rangers) and what a doozy it would be. Moreover, one series is exactly the same (Florida/NYI) and three are pretty much a zipcode or two apart from each other (San Jose is facing Anaheim instead of Los Angeles and Pittsburgh/Philadelphia/Washington/NYR are all an amtrack away).

Final Thoughts

Is this idle speculation from a guy who’s primary team didn’t make the playoffs trying to fix something that may or may not need fixing? Sure. But having finally had an opportunity to watch my local baseball team play meaningful games in September and the ever pervasive NFL and it’s national playoff structure got me thinking about what it would be like and the travesty that is the Eastern Conference unbalanced nature infuriated me at the end of the season. Surely the league can do better.