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WHL adopts NHL’s division-based playoff format; here’s the pros and cons

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Top NHL draft prospect Sam Reinhart and Kootenay would have been a cross-over team under the new format (CP)

The Western Hockey League, in installing a NHL-style playoff format it calls a "hybrid of the WHL’s previous Conference and Divisional formats," probably missed a golden opportunity to win major points for intellectual honesty.

It would have, forgive the editorializing, been refreshing if the WHL had come right out and said, "we're a feeder league to the NHL; this is what it does and what is good for goose is good for the goslings." Be that as it may, there is a lot to like, especially from a standpoint of potentially reducing travel time for tired young athletes during early round matchups. There is also, as Daniel Nugent-Bowman put it, "potential for series between fierce rivals with minimal travel." What would have been better for the bottom line of both coastal B.C. franchises this spring — a first-ever affray between the Vancouver Giants and three-year-old Victoria Royals, or what actually happened, which was Vancouver being swept by Portland while the Royals faced the Spokane Chiefs?

For demonstration purposes, here's the first round from 2014 re-sorted.

Eastern Conference

Central Division — Prince Albert (second wild card) vs. Edmonton, Medicine Hat vs. Calgary; East Division — Kootenay (first wild card) vs. Regina, Brandon vs. Swift Current

Western Conference

U.S. Division — Spokane (first wild card) vs. Portland, Everett vs. Seattle; B.C. Division — Tri-City (second wild card) vs. Kelowna, Vancouver vs. Victoria.

Kootenay actually tallied only two fewer points than East-winning Regina. Presumably the Sam Reinhart-led Ice, who ousted 103-point Calgary, probably would have also advanced, and possibly even come out of a division they don't actually play in.

And, for grins, 2013:

Eastern Conference

Central Division — Kootenay (second wild card) vs. Edmonton, Red Deer vs. Calgary; East Division — Medicine Hat (first wild card) vs. Saskatoon, Swift Current vs. Prince Albert.

Western Conference

U.S. Division — Everett (second wild card) vs. Portland, Tri-City vs. Spokane; B.C. Division — Seattle (first wild card) vs. Kelowna, Victoria vs. Kamloops.

Six of the eight matchups would have been the same; Red Deer played Prince Albert and Calgary played Swift Current in '13. This retcon preserves the 2013 Medicine Hat-Saskatoon matchup, where the Tigers swept the Memorial Cup-host Blades. Is that a load off anyone else's mind?

Whether this actually makes the playoffs more "fair and competitive" depends on one's working definitions. It means, had this been used in 2014, 92-point Medicine Hat would not have home ice for the first round whereas 85-points-apiece Regina and Swift Current did. Granted, a full-season record isn't a measure of a team's true strength.

The league also certainly has a gap to address between its big-market teams such as Calgary and Edmonton and clubs in smaller centres across the Prairies. Maybe, for instance, it is fairer to try to use a format that gives the Saskatchewan teams some encouragement. Only one team based in the province has made the Eastern final in the past five post-seasons.

The NHL generally has greater competitive balance than any major junior league, so time will tell how applying the former's format to the latter will pan out. At the very least, though, a niche league should strive to be more relatable for the general public, so cribbing from the NHL format has its merits.

Parity cannot be legislated and any new playoff format is bound to create unintended consequences, which actually seems like part of the fun of following a junior hockey league.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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