In a 30-team league where 16 teams make the playoffs, the policy of guaranteeing top-3 seeds (or even playoff spots, really) to division winners has always been stupid. But this season, more than any in recent memory, really drives the point home.
I’m writing this on Tuesday, March 22, 2012, with the regular season about 90 percent finished. Here’s the NHL top 10 by points accumulated this morning:
1. St. Louis (100)
2. New York Rangers (99)
3. Pittsburgh (96)
4. Vancouver (95)
5. Detroit (93)
6. Philadelphia (92)
7. Nashville (92)
8. Chicago (92)
9. New Jersey (89)
10. Boston (87)
Now here’s the NHL top 10 in goal differential, factoring out shootout goals for/against:
1. Boston (+52)
2. Pittsburgh (+49)
3. St. Louis (+49)
4. New York Rangers (+42)
5. Vancouver (+40)
6. Detroit (+39)
7. Philadelphia (+29)
8. Nashville (+18)
9. Los Angeles (+14)
10. Chicago (+14)
It’s impossible to miss the total domination of the Central and Atlantic divisions. Eight of the top nine teams in terms of standings points (though Boston has two games in hand on the Devils), and seven of the top 10 by goal differential, reside in these two divisions.
In the West, the Central is accompanied by the Northwest (which has one great team, one average team and three also-rans) and the Pacific (which has four slightly-above average teams and a below average team).
In the East, the Atlantic is flanked by the Northeast (which is basically in the same boat as the Northwest) and the Southeast, which is absolute rubbish.
Let’s take a closer look at the Southeast, actually. Here they are sorted in points order, along with NHL rank:
1. Florida (85 points, 12th)
2. Washington (80 points, 19th)
3. Winnipeg (76 points, 21st)
4. Carolina (75 points, 22nd)
5. Tampa Bay (71 points, 25th)
Now sorted by goal differential, factoring out shootout “goals,” with NHL rank:
1. Washington (-9, 17th)
2. Carolina (-15, 21st)
3. Florida (-15, T22nd)
4. Winnipeg (-15, T22nd)
5. Tampa Bay (-44, 28th)
Consider also that, while Florida has a good lead over Washington in terms of total points, Washington is the only team in the division to win at least half of its games—and only barely that, with 37 victories in 73 contests.
The word “parity” gets thrown around a lot to describe the NHL these days, and on a league-wide basis it’s a pretty accurate description. But on a division-by-division basis, the gaps are huge – and that throws a monkey wrench into what is supposed to be a “fair” playoff seeding matrix based on a team’s relative merit. Consider the following:
1) In both conferences, the current No. 6 seed is projected to finish ahead of the No. 3 seed in terms of points accumulated and goal differential. In fact, it is still entirely possible (though not projected) that one or both sixth seeds will have a greater standings advantage over the third seeds than the seconds have over the sevenths. Think about that.
2) Consider Philadelphia and New Jersey, currently fifth and sixth in the East. If the playoffs started today, the fifth-place Flyers would draw Pittsburgh (96 points, +49, healthy Crosby) and the sixth-place Devils would draw Florida (85 points, -15, fifth-worst team in the entire NHL at even strength). How is that fair? You think the Flyers are tempted to throw a few games and let the Devils take the Penguins? I would be.
3) In the West, some combination of Detroit, Nashville and Chicago will likely finish 4-5-6. But sixth place will almost certainly yield the best opening-round matchup.
4) In the West, the Pacific Division title could go down to the wire between any of Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose. The winner of the division is guaranteed the third seed, but none of those teams is likely to finish higher than sixth in points or fifth in goal differential. It is conceivable that one ROW (the first tiebreaker after total points) could be the difference between a No. 3 seed and No. 7 seed.
It has never been more obvious that the playoff seeding system in the NHL is broken. While there will always be teams that are “better” or “worse” than their standings position suggests (injuries, coaching changes, or just plain bad or good luck can have a big effect, especially in a relatively evenly matched league), the current system allows for the kind of ridiculous scenarios listed above.
In a fair system, it should not ever be significantly more advantageous to finish sixth than to finish fourth. But that’s the situation in both conferences right now. In fact, considering Boston’s recent slide, it might honestly be better to finish SEVENTH in the East than to finish fourth or fifth, at least for the first round. That’s insane, and it’s unfair.
Now, let’s look at the matchups without divisional bias (I used points percentage rather than total points to determine the rankings, since teams still have an unequal amount of games played). West:
1. St. Louis versus Phoenix
2. Vancouver versus Los Angeles
3. Nashville versus Dallas
4. Detroit versus Chicago
And the East:
1. New York versus Washington
2. Pittsburgh versus Ottawa
3. Philadelphia versus Florida
4. Boston versus New Jersey
Or how about just lining the teams up 1-16? Ideally you'd want a fairly balanced schedule to pull it off in the real world, but for the sake of illustration this is how it would look today:
1. St. Louis versus Colorado
2. New York versus Phoenix
3. Pittsburgh versus Ottawa
4. Vancouver versus Los Angeles
5. Philadelphia versus Florida
6. Nashville versus Dallas
7. Detroit versus New Jersey
8. Chicago versus Boston
Maybe it's just me, but I think either one of these breakdowns makes a lot more sense, and is a lot fairer, than the system currently in place.
So come on, NHL. It’s time to abandon a division-based seeding format. Keep divisions for the scheduling matrix, if you must, but using them to award top-three seeds no longer makes any sense—not that it ever made that much sense to begin with.