The Stanley Cup playoffs are the best time of the year for hockey fans. The intensity of each game is ratcheted up to a degree that no other sport can match, even the one and done frenzy of the NFL playoffs. The chase for the Cup has its cool traditions, from playoff beards to octopi on the ice. Year after year, I find myself choosing to watch hockey over basketball in April and May, even though I watch far more hoops during the regular season and my understanding of basketball is exponentially greater.
That said, hockey, like all sports, needs its regular season to keep the lights on. And in order for the regular season to be as relevant as possible, it has to impact the outcome of the playoffs as much as possible. This brings us to Barack Obama, possibly the first reference to the former president in a hockey story. Rather than be hamstrung by rigid adherence to ideological principles, Obama often described his governing philosophy by this simple edict: “Don’t do stupid shit.” (That includes misplacing aircraft carrier fleets, but that’s another story.) Unlike the NBA, which, in the interest of getting the best eight teams from each conference in the playoffs, has de-emphasized its divisional format to such an extent that only the most ardent fans can even tell you who is in the Northwest Division, the NHL has based its playoff format almost entirely on its four divisions. (Another way to restate the Obama doctrine in sports terms would be this: when another league is cleaning your clock in revenues and television ratings, doing the opposite of what they do is probably not your best move.)
The NHL allocates playoff slots to the three best teams in each of its four divisions, then reserves four wild card slots for the best two remaining teams from each conference. Not only that, but teams only play games within their division — with the exception of series against the wild card teams — until the conference finals. As a result, we have arguably the two best teams in the league, Washington and Pittsburgh, playing in the conference semifinals. Meanwhile, two teams that finished the regular season nine and 13 points behind Pittsburgh in the standings, the Rangers and Ottawa, have met in the other Eastern Conference semifinal. Even though the Rangers finished the regular season with more points than the Senators, because New York made the playoffs as a wild card, Ottawa will have home ice in this series; between that and the fact that they have the weakest opponent in the semis, it is reasonable to conclude that they have the best odds of the four remaining teams to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, even though they have the worst regular season record.
The same thing is going on in the Western Conference. The two teams with the best regular season records, Edmonton and Anaheim, play each other in the second round, while Nashville and St Louis, who scored first round upsets, have met. If the league had kept its old system of reseeding after each round, a rare instance where it bucked the norm and came up with something better than the NBA, the Oilers would have met St. Louis and had home ice.
Pittsburgh and Edmonton are not even the most egregious victim in this playoff season. The Columbus Blue Jackets had the third best record in the Eastern Conference in what was by far the greatest season in their history, and were rewarded for it with a first round matchup against the Penguins, without home ice. Meanwhile, Ottawa, who finished with ten fewer points than Columbus, got home ice and a weaker opponent, the Bruins, whom they beat to set up their favorable conference semifinal matchup.
Why would the NHL do this? Why would they play an arduous 82 game season, only to have every team’s playoff seeding be far more dependent on the division they were assigned to than on how many games they won? There are two reasons. First, they have the idea that meeting the same teams over and over in the playoffs breeds passionate rivalries. This is not only stupid, it’s offensive. To think that hockey fans can be manipulated by a marketing decision into being more passionate about a matchup insults their intelligence. The other reason, which is pure conjecture on my part, is that by clustering all of the Canadian teams except for Winnipeg into two divisions and then bracketing the playoffs by division, the league greatly boosted the odds of having at least a few Canadian teams make the playoffs. That may sound like a conspiracy theory to you, but most of the folks in the league office are Canadian, so I’m just sayin…
There are other things I wish this league would fix, like having sixteen teams in the Eastern Conference and fourteen in the Western Conference. Why should your odds of making the playoffs be fourteen percent better just because of your zip code? Hopefully the next round of expansion fixes that. Or flip flopping every four years over whether they want to be part of the Olympics. Or configuring the standings so that 22 out of thirty teams have more wins than losses. That makes it look like the league is aspiring to be Lake Woebegone. Why not give three points for a win, two points for an overtime or shootout win, and one point for an overtime or shootout loss, and just show the standings with wins, losses, and points. The standings already have about ten columns, so any change should simplify things unless they let an economist set it up.
It’s not like hockey has to make huge structural changes in order to enhance its appeal. Nobody’s complaining about the games being too long, or the players getting into trouble too much. But it doesn’t help when they do things that the most casual fan can see don’t make sense.