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"Talking New York Rangers Hockey, since 2007"
New York, NY • United States • 23 Years Old • Male

Unfair Advantage

Posted 6:18 PM ET | Comments 7
The world of professional sports is always striving to create a fair, if not equal, playing field for all competitors. The entire concept of sports is for one individual or group to triumph over others who were also capable of winning. Although on a micro level there are teams with more talent than others, the opportunity for an organization to build a strong team is not hindered or helped by the league more than any other organization is. On both the team and organizational level, the league has a responsibility to ensure that nobody is put at an advantage or disadvantage as that is, in essence, protecting the sport. The surfacing of performance enhancing drugs in sports has created a scandal because it destroys the fairness of competition. Issues in the NHL such as the salary cap, the stricter enforcement of obstruction and the shootout have been topics of discussion and debate because they involve parity among teams and players. It is therefore quite strange, even baffling, that a major incongruity with these aspirations for fairness has not been greatly addressed.

The Carolina Hurricanes have the 6th most points in the Eastern Conference yet if the season were to end today, they would be the 3 seed. In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild have the 5th best record and would also be seeded 3rd. This occurs because the winner of each division is guaranteed a top 3 seeding, regardless of their record. As a result, the entire playoff picture is skewed and first round match-ups are not based on record. The team with the 3rd and 4th best record in a conference must play each other instead of facing weaker, lower ranked teams. The 6th seed gets a favorable match-up because they play the winner of the weakest division instead of the team with the 3rd best record. Finally, the division winner itself plays a weaker team than they would have drawn if the seeding was based solely on ranking. In fact, in some extreme cases, a team that does not have enough points to make the playoffs would do so anyway. Although that case may not be likely, the winner of the weakest division would often be battling for playoff position during the stretch run of the season but instead gets to avoid that battle and must only stay on top of their division to qualify. It creates two playoff races, one for the teams not in contention for a division title, and one for those which are. This excludes teams from the conference-wide, grueling playoff race and takes away one potential playoff spot from the teams competing for the last seed.

The purpose of this system is undoubtedly to manufacture an advantage for the division winner despite the resultant ramifications that it has on other teams. The justification for it then must be more compelling than the damage is distressing for it to be valid. It is possible that the automatic top 3 seed is meant as a reward for the division winner. The parallel can be drawn to NCAA Basketball in which the winners of less prestigious basketball conferences are given a berth to the NCAA Tournament despite not having a sufficient record or strength of schedule to qualify. However, college basketball differs greatly from professional sports in that it embraces the underdog and looks for the Cinderella story to create excitement. Professional sports try to reward the most deserving team with a championship and not give opportunities to teams that did not earn them. It is therefore not correct for the NHL to reward a division winner in order to assist the underdog.

Additionally, the NCAA has many obscure conferences that would not be represented in the tournament at all and in order to generate interest in these conferences the best team is granted an automatic berth. These mid-major teams are also not given high seedings because of their conference title and are merely awarded a berth into the tournament. The NHL, on the other hand, only contains 30 teams, does not exclude teams from the playoffs because of weak schedules, and contains division winners that are usually valid playoff teams. It is therefore not necessary for the division winner to be boosted to the 3 seed to generate competition in weaker divisions because they can and must earn a playoff spot through their record alone. Therefore, the reward for winning a division is not applicable to the NHL. Additionally, the biggest reward for a team is to play in a weak division because their schedule is considerably easier. It is not necessary to further reward to the division winner with an undeserved ranking.

Comparisons can also be drawn to the NFL and MLB which also give the division winners an automatic playoffs berth. However, the NFL and MLB playoffs are based on division standings, not overall standings. In fact, division winners make up more than half of the playoff teams in each sport while the other playoff teams are referred to as wild card teams. The word “wild card” itself is a testament to the stress that the two leagues put on divisional standings. In the NHL, the playoff seeding is based on conference standings, with the 3rd seed being the exception. When there are only 3 divisions and 8 playoff teams, the seeding must be based on overall standings and should be throughout. Instead, there is one inconsistency in this format and one that causes serious damage to the integrity of the playoffs.

It is reasonable to suggest that the division winners are assured a 3 seed to avoid isolating a division that would otherwise not draw great attention. The goal of the NHL is to generate interest in hockey throughout the United States, and to isolate a particular region would be counterproductive to this goal. However, the divisions are based on location and that format naturally produces divisions that are far apart on the talent spectrum. The larger hockey markets are often grouped together geographically and when they are grouped together divisionally as well, they create powerful divisions. On the other hands, the smaller hockey markets, namely the southeastern cities, are all in the same division and do not put out as good of a product as the other divisions do. This results in the problem of isolating a division and region because of their inability to keep up. It is an issue that the salary cap was meant to circumvent but can never be fully avoided, especially with the notable rise in the cap ceiling. Therefore, the division winner is rewarded with a 3 seed in order to generate excitement in the otherwise disinterested region both for the winning city and the other cities involved in the race for the division championship.

By all means this is a marketing move. It is meant to generate country-wide interest in hockey, something that the NHL has been trying to do since the expansion era began. However, the strategy itself is questionable. Putting aside whether it is a worthy cause to bend the rules in order to promote hockey, the method in which it is being done is not very effective and possibly counterproductive. The division winner usually has a good enough record to be a playoff team and the guaranteed 3 seed only generates slightly more interest because of their higher seeding. The playoff fate of these teams is often a first round exit, regardless of the opposition, so the higher ranking does not help much past putting them higher on the bracket. The remaining 4 teams in that division that would not make the playoffs are included in this mini-race but would have to have a playoff worthy record to win the division, rendering the effect of the automatic 3 seed on them irrelevant. If the other teams are good enough to make the playoffs, that particular region would not need the slightly greater interest generated by the guaranteed 3 seed.

Additionally, it is questionable if the best way to generate long term hockey interest in a particular region is to give them exemptions. This sets this division’s goals much lower than the rest of the league and the need for management to build an elite team is nonexistent. The team becomes dependant on winning the division and does not need to work as hard to achieve what the casual fan considers success, a playoff berth. Though it may help short-term to create excitement in one city per year, it would be better in the long run to force these organizations to build a playoff worthy team by the entire league’s standards. By not letting divisions get away with mediocre performances you are in essence forcing them to do better and as a result, forcing them to generate interest in their region for the long run.

Perhaps it is better for the popularity of the sport to give division winners a top 3 seed. However, that justification pales in comparison to the destruction that this system causes. It prevents the top 4 teams record-wise to advance to the second round. It gives the 6 seed an advantage over the 4 and 5 seeds and it may even knock a deserving team out of the playoffs. Although this situation does not arise every season and the point differential between the 3rd and 4th seed is not very large, it is still something that should be considered unfair because it does effect the playoff picture in many key ways. Therefore, in order to preserve the integrity of the sport and to create a fair playing field for all teams, it would be in the best interest of the league to base the playoff brackets solely on records. After all, seeing juiced behemoths hit baseballs 500 feet and putting undeserving division winners in the top 3 seeds may be popular, but they are both unfair.
March 20, 2008 6:48 PM ET | Delete
Agreed. At least in the NCAA tournament, while those small conference champions may receive an automatic bid to the tourney, they are not guaranteed a high seed, or an easier road.
March 20, 2008 7:58 PM ET | Delete
Your article is interesting but there is one key concept you left out that helps to justify the division winner taking one of the top 3 seeds. The key concept I speak of is the fact that teams within the same division play each other 8 times per season (although I believe this is supposed to change to 6 times in future seasons) which totals to 32 inter-divisonal games out of a total of 82 games played. So for sake of argument lets say every team in the division splits each 8 game series for 4 wins, and 4 losses (not in OT or shootout) that is a total of 32 Points gained, and 32 points lost for each team. Also for sake of argument lets say two of the teams that went 4-4 against divisional opponents would have gone 6-2 if they had played teams from other divisions. That would results in 48 points gained, 16 points more, and likely a playoff berth because of them. For example, lets say the Sens, Red Wings, Devils, Penguins and the Sharks were all in the same division. These teams are currently ranked very high in the standings, but if they were all in the same division all five of those teams could not possibly have the amount of points they do now. This is why the top team in each division makes the playoffs. I understand your point and why you feel the way you do, especially if your team is fighting for the 8th spot and has more points than the team in 3rd place simply because of the division lead, but I myself prefer the division rivalry games as they are much more exciting. The way I see it you would have to have each team in the league play every other team in the league an equal amount of times to remove the division leader as a top seed. I don't think its worth it, because I'd much rather watch Toronto versus Montreal 6 or 8 times a year, they are the most exciting games! (I am a Leafs fan.) I am not trying to put down your article, simply stating the otherside of the argument. Good article, I did enjoy it.
March 21, 2008 12:25 AM ET | Delete
You are obviously not a fan of the Mid Majors.
March 21, 2008 10:09 AM ET | Delete
npc902, you bring up a very good point. However, every team in the league must deal with 6 or 8 division games. Every division leader had points taken away by division rivals. The better teams are able to overcome that antd earn enough points to make the playoffs. The Pacific division has the Sharks, Stars and Ducks all with better records than the Wild. They have taken away points from each other all year yet they take advantage of the games out of their division and get a lot of points. They are better than the other teams despite their schedule and they are desrving of the 2,3 and 4 seeds. The wild arein a tough division also but had they had the same sucess outside of the division as the sharks, stars and ducks had, they would have a better record. True, their division rivals take away many points but every division has that. The southeast division winner is certainly not deserving of a 3 seed because they have an EASY schedule. Carolina has a much better ecord within their division than outside of it becasue the southeast is so weak. In fact, after they make it 6 divisional games, I would be surprised if any of those teams has enough points to make the playoffs. So I believe that while division rivals take away points, teams must overcome that without help from the guarenteed 3 seed.
March 21, 2008 12:39 PM ET | Delete
Good read and it makes you think. Your point may be valid THIS year. However, if you go back in time and look at the results, you may not find this disparity in standings/points over time. Also, if this happened every year and the difference was 10 - 15 points, then I think you would have more people jumping up and down. As it equates out this year, the difference is 1-3 games (2 - 6 points). And as the statisticans go, this is "well within the margin of error."
March 21, 2008 5:17 PM ET | Delete
I don't know about other years but as far as this year goes, regradless of the points separating the teams, Carolina does not deserve a 3 seed and neither does Minnesota. The effect this has on the standings are tremendous and even though the points are within the margin of error, the rankings are not IMO. Additionally, if this year is a problem and other years were not, it would still be an improvement to eliminate the problem completely. I am not saying the NHL will change or even should, I am just pointing out that this yaer, it is unfair and the league should consider adjustment.
March 21, 2008 7:36 PM ET | Delete
great read!
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