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.