22 November 2006

changing the playoff format


A quarter of the way through this season, postseason favourites are already being anointed as Buffalo and Anaheim have opened up relatively comfortable leads in each conference. It’s only November but today I’m standing on my soapbox, ranting against…the playoffs. The NHL playoff system as it stands is inherently unfair. Why would I bring this up when we’re still nearly five months away from the NHL postseason? Because Sabres and Ducks fans shouldn’t get too cocky - having the best team in the regular season is in no way a guarantee towards playoff success. And a revamped playoff system which legitimately rewards the better teams will in turn make for a more exciting and competitive regular season.

Here’s the problem: the present playoff system favours the teams who are the best at a particular point in spring as opposed to the entire year. Over the last ten seasons the President’s Trophy winner has only won the Stanley Cup three times (Dallas 1999, Colorado 2001, Detroit 2002) and in no other season even reached the finals. I say it’s time to take a step back and completely reevaluate the present playoff concept because it is counter-intuitive; teams that excel for the entire 82 game schedule are essentially punished - or at least not rewarded - by not gaining any significant advantage during the postseason.

Let’s look at the logic, or lack thereof: in the current system, the only advantage a division or conference champion earns by being consistently great for nearly seven months is merely the possibility of an extra home game in each round. How is this fair, or for that matter even an advantage? Last year’s playoff teams compiled an aggregate 44-39 record at home, hardly an appreciable home-ice advantage. Teams that may be vastly inferior overall - yet get hot (or healthy) for as little as a four-game stretch - can destroy the hopes of a team that has been superior for months longer. One key short-term injury to say, a starting goaltender, could single-handedly derail the favourite’s hopes.

Sure, in theory there is a built-in additional advantage in that the higher-ranked teams obviously get to play a “weaker” team in the playoffs. Yet a look at some of the so-called “bottom” playoff teams over the past decade shows a good deal of first round upsets, calling into question just how much weaker they really are at the time; take last year for example - of the eight first round series, four “underdogs” won (all four being in the Western Conference), including the monster upset of Edmonton over Detroit. Detroit finished with 124 points – only eight behind the all-time record (Montreal, 1976-77) and 29 points more than the Oilers (who squeaked into the playoffs on the second-to-last day) only to fall to Edmonton in six games.

A further advantage for the “weaker” teams is that the trading deadline is obscenely late in the season – this year it will occur on February 27th, a mere five weeks before the end of the regular season. A team can muddle through the bulk of the schedule, then make a major addition to their lineup for relatively little short-term cost (not counting future considerations, draft picks, etc.); a team will only have to pay roughly one quarter of the salary of an acquired player at the deadline. With the salary cap now in place, we’re likely to see an increase in the “rent-a-player” method employed so frequently over the past few years (most likely to move would be Peter Forsberg, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this year and the way the Flyers are going this year, highly unlikely to make the playoffs in Philly) that can dramatically alter the power balance in the league so late in the season.

OK, I hear you: “enough talk – what do you propose?” First, a question: Why is it that most North American professional sports leagues are so unimaginative when it comes to a playoff format? The standard formula seems to be: eight teams (or four in baseball) per league get in, rank ‘em, then play a string of standard playoff series (at least the NFL offers a bye to the top teams). The NHL has been criticized in recent years for losing much of its uniqueness – let’s bring some of that back by making a unique playoff format. The easiest or most-obvious one is to award byes to division winners. This is not unprecedented in the NHL, which has a dizzying history of changing playoff formats. For a time during the 1970s, when the league hosted 17 and 18 teams, a total of 12 made the playoffs from four divisions. Each division winner received a bye, while the remaining eight played a short (and unforgiving) best of three preliminary series. The four winners were then reseeded as 5-8 and faced off in the second round against the top four teams. This was in place until the World Hockey Association folded and the NHL acquired four of their teams, making the total 21 – they then went to the 16-team format (hard to believe how long that pitiful “16 out of 21 teams make the playoffs” system was in place – it lasted until 1992 when the NHL began a new wave of expansion, starting with San Jose) which still stands in a slightly modified form today.

In recent years we have heard the occasional rumour that there is an underground movement afoot to increase the number of playoff teams to 20, which would include a bit of my idea – the bottom four (7-10) qualifiers in each conference would play each other in an initial round, and the two winners there would play the top two seeds. As much as I don’t like the idea of more playoff teams at all, that’s really not too bad. It would create incentives on different levels: it would benefit the top two teams in that they’d earn the right to oppose two teams who have already played a round and would - in theory - be a bit more beat up. Also, teams below them would be fighting for those 3 through 6 slots to avoid the “suicide” round. The problem of course is obvious, in that you’re essentially giving byes to the top six teams in the conference.

The present 30 team league makes it hard to come up with an easy alternate playoff system, unless you were to cut the amount of qualifying teams (copying the 1970s system of 12 teams), which will never happen. So here’s how to make everyone happy: put an extra team in the hunt and increase the total playoff teams to 18 - nine per conference. Rank the teams as you do now by giving the division winners the one through three slots, then four through nine based on total points. Now here’s where the big changes come, which adds an extra (short) round to the playoffs: the preliminary round matches up #6 vs. #9 and #7 vs. #8. Then in the second round you have those two winners matching up against seeds #2 and #3 (with the #4 and #5 seeds battling against each other as well). What of the conference champion? They’re sitting this one out, waiting for the next round to face their first opponent. This works all around – you have nine playoff slots, teams six through nine have to play a preliminary round (let’s say best of three which will create great drama and won’t delay the full playoffs for more than a few days), and division winners two and three get an advantage in that they play the winners of the preliminary round. Once this first best-of-seven round is done, you’re down to four in the conference and you reseed everyone – the conference champs have earned a huge prize in the right to automatically make the conference final four and play the lowest-seeded remaining team.

While we are at it, how about one more radical proposition? Start the season in January. Remember the 1995 season, where a lockout prevented the season from starting on time and the puck was first dropped in January? Despite the lousy publicity the league got for killing any momentum coming off a successful playoff in 1994, the 48-game shortened season was great – there were no cross-conference games and therefore every game was a battle for playoff position. Admittedly, this proposal has virtually no chance of ever being implemented – it’s obvious that the regular season is the cash cow for the owners, and as much as I want to think of myself as a “purist” it’s easy to understand that without money, there’s no league.

That’s fine – this is more justification to implement a less-radical proposal to simply change the playoff format and reward the top teams in each conference for a job well-done over the long haul. It will hardly guarantee victory for the top teams, but that’s not the point – yes, you are more likely to crown a more worthy champion but the most important result would be giving all teams a real incentive to finish as high as possible in the regular season. And finally, finishing first overall would mean more than just a meaningless banner to hang from the rafters – it would gain a team perhaps an extra week of rest, increasing the likelihood of their actual entire squad suiting up for their first round and a better chance at the ultimate goal – the Stanley Cup.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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