Gary Bettman didn’t want the new NHL playoff format.
Oh, don’t get us wrong: He probably likes the parity and the unpredictability. He would especially like the established rivals that are destined to meet in the first round: The New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, and the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings.
But during the lockout, Bettman – the basketball guy, destroyer of hockey tradition – was the one arguing for a return to no-frills, straight ahead divisional play. Old school style: Four divisions, teams only play within their divisions for the first two rounds and then the division winners meet in the conference final.
It was the NHLPA that influenced the current format, as two divisions of eight teams and two divisions of seven teams were seen as inequitable. So instead of the old school format, we have a playoff format with the possibility that two Central Division teams could both win division championship banners this postseason.
For poops and giggles, here’s what the division standings would look like right now, sans wild cards:
The divisional format would have actually given us reduced drama in the Eastern Conference.
Instead of multiple teams, it would have been just the Toronto Maple Leafs chasing Detroit. Instead of the Red Wings potentially playing either Boston or Pittsburgh in the first round, it would be the Bruins for sure – meaning the top seed in the East by a country mile would pull arguably a tougher first round matchup than the Metro winner.
But in the Metro, we’d still have a three-team jumble for the last playoff spot; but again, it would just be one open spot instead of two like we have now.
Over in the West … welp, the Coyotes would be cemented into a playoff spot now. And the Stars would be chasing the Wild instead of residing in the second wild card like they are now.
What about the previous format we’ve enjoyed since 1994: The conference draw?
This is the conference format under two divisions in each conference. The only major changes, obviously, are in the first-round matchups: The Rangers wouldn’t likely have home ice and would play either Montreal or Tampa Bay. The Flyers would face whichever team the Rangers didn’t.
In the West, however, the conference format yielded the same matchups we currently have under the wild card format.
Of course, one of the biggest deviations from this format is that there’s no re-seeding after the first round with the wild cards. So Boston will face either Tampa Bay or Montreal no matter what happens in the other division; in this format, Boston had double the possibilities for a second-round foe.
The re-seeding thing is a problem for me. I hate the fact that a top seed like Boston isn’t better protected. They’ve earned it, and it’s one of the reasons why the format was changed from divisional to conference.
Well, that and the fact that really, really good teams were getting screwed out of playoff spots because their division was better than the other one.
Two other concerns I have about the new format: Parity and predictability.
From a parity perspective … it’s something the NHL can try to force but can’t really control.
The Western Conference is a three-teams-for-two-spots race. Back in 2012 around this time, the Capitals (84 points) had the Sabres on their tail (84) for the last seed, with Winnipeg (78) and Tampa (77) back aways. The West was crazier: Five teams within two points of each other, vying for two spots.
So the new format at least keeps teams in the hunt just as long as the conference format did, in theory.
But the one downer is the predictability. All the non-wild card series are locked: Tampa/Montreal, Philly/Rangers, Avs/Blackhawks, Sharks/Kings (unless you think the Sharks can catch the Ducks, who have a 3-point lead and a game in-hand). Instead of jockeying for playoff seeds and potentially easier draws, all these teams are playing for is home ice.
The question is whether lowered stakes for guaranteed rivalry series – in the case of the Pacific and the Metro – is a worthy tradeoff?
I’m still wait-and-see on the current format. But as far as keeping us interested in a playoff race until the end, I think they got the bubble right.