Speculation: Playoff Format Changes Ahead?

As the Stanley Cup Playoffs hurtle towards the end of the conference final series, we look forward to seeing the survivors from the Eastern and Western conference playoffs meeting in the Finals within the next week or so, to see who will take home Lord Stanley's Cup, and the bragging rights for which team (and which conference) came out on top.

But what if that were to change?

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, I signed up for the NHL's "Fan Faceoff" survey panel a few years ago, which means I periodically get sent emails asking me my opinion on broadcasting options, mobile content, online streaming, and similar items. Now and then I get asked about things like my perception of the NHL vs. various sports leagues - you can probably imagine how it all goes.

But yesterday, I got a survey that was rather interesting, and perhaps suggests directions that the NHL might explore in the future.

For much of the survey, it was about what you'd expect: "Are you watching the playoffs?"

"We see you're a fan of the COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS. They didn't make the playoffs. Are you 'Adopting' another team?"

"How did you choose to adopt a team?" (I'm disappointed that They were playing against the Red Wings wasn't an option, but at least they did include "Facing teams I disliked".)

"How much are you watching the NHL network during the playoffs?"

But it took a curve at the end. Here's the first question that perked my ears up (and I apologize if this isn't exactly the correct wording of the question - I didn't think to take screenshots):

"Currently, the playoffs involve divisional champions in each conference given a 1, 2, or 3 seed. If seeding were changed to be determined solely by points, would you still have the same interest?"

It sounds a bit to me like the NHL is debating changing to a model like the NBA switched to in 2006, which could potentially eliminate home ice advantage for a division champion if there's a higher ranked team. This year, for example, in the Eastern conference, Boston would have lost home ice advantage and dropped into the 5 seed, while Pittsburgh would have slid into #3 (and a potentially more favorable matchup vs. Montreal), while Tampa would be in the #4 slot, and would have seen the Bruins in the first round.

In the West, seeding wouldn't have changed this season, but last season would have seen Phoenix facing LA in the first round as the #3 seed instead of having to host the Red Wings. (Vancouver, who had been in the #3 seed as NW champs, would have faced Detroit as the #4 seed instead) How different would their playoffs have been? How much would the Coyotes' losses been reduced with (potentially) a second round appearance?

It's not hard to see why this change is being debated, but I can also see why a lot of fans (and, for that matter, GMs and Governors) would resist. Why should a team try to win their division if they wouldn't be rewarded with a guarantee of home ice advantage in the playoffs? Why value so many divisional matchups in the schedule and not pay them off?

Valid points, and particularly since we've discussed how important divisional games are to a playoff team under the current system, but if the NHL was going to revise the playoff format, it doesn't seem too far out of line to suggest that perhaps the scheduling matrix might also be changed. (I'm still a fan of a schedule that sees a home and away matchup against every NHL team, then adding in regional opponents, but that's just me.)

That's nothing, however, compared to the OTHER question that followed it:

"Currently, the playoff format has teams seeded in the Eastern and Western conferences, 1-8, facing each other, before the Stanley Cup Final pits the winner of the East vs. the winner of the West. If the playoffs instead seeded the top teams from each conference 1-16 by points, regardless of conference, would you still have interest?"

Wow. That's a radical shift, to say the least.

What the question suggests, then, is something similar to the playoff format in the MLS, where teams are seeded by points, and if a higher point team from the "Western" conference bumps a team from the East out of the playoffs, well, too damn bad for them, isn't it?

This, I have to admit, is both an exciting idea and potentially really, really frustrating.

Let's start with the obvious points.

  • This again devalues both conference and divisional play, since it's all about the total point values.
  • It would eliminate complaints about "weaker" teams making it into the Stanley Cup finals, since there would be no bias of schedule - it's simply the best vs. the best.
  • The potential for a "Cinderella" could be headline gold - imagine if a team came in from the 16th seed to win the cup?
  • How would home ice work? Do the 1-8 seeds get home ice in the first round vs. the 9-16 seeds? Would they continue to re-calculate home ice based on the survivors?
  • Would the Stanley Cup Playoffs be as exciting if, say, Vancouver were playing San Jose for the ultimate prize, and the Eastern conference was totally eliminated prior to the finals? (Eastern die hards, feel free to substitute Boston and Tampa Bay here).
  • How would the perceived weaker Eastern conference clubs feel about potentially losing post-season berths (and revenue!) to Western clubs?
  • Travel would be a PAIN, particularly in the first round. Imagine the logistical complications of a first round series between LA and Philadelphia? Vancouver and New York? That could get messy for TV broadcasts and schedulers alike.
  • Right now, it's basically a given that at least two Canadian teams make it into the playoffs every season. How would Canadian fans deal with a system where all the Canadian clubs could potentially find themselves on the outside looking in? (Or would they simply blind themselves with the potential for ALL of the Canadian teams to make it in?)

How would that have looked this year?

1. Vancouver
2. Washington
3. Philadelphia
4. Pittsburgh
5. San Jose
6. Detroit
7. Tampa Bay
8. Boston
9. Anaheim
10. Nashville
11. Phoenix
12. Los Angeles
13. Chicago
14. Montreal
15. Buffalo
16. Dallas

There's a surprising lack of inter-conference play in the top three matchups, but after that it gets interesting. Chicago / Pittsburgh? Anaheim / Boston? Tampa / Phoenix? Hot damn. Those are some first round series I'd have loved to see. Even Vancouver / Dallas would have been chock full of interesting storylines.

Again, I'm not sure I'd see this system really taking off without a serious realignment to how scheduling is handled. For every reason I can think of that it could be really fun, I see pitfalls and potential headaches galore.

But when you consider that there are rumors swirling that the potential move of the Thrashers to Winnipeg might end up triggering a full scale realignment of the NHL, perhaps it's not a bad time to sit down and consider how the postseason might change, too.

While we can't know what the NHL's survey data looks like, let's take a sample of our own - what do you think of these ideas? Is this worth considering, or would this be the worst revamp since New Coke?

How do you feel about changing the NHL's playoff format, based on the options presented?

It shouldn't change - I like it as it is.127
Seed each conference based on points only.76
The best 16 teams in the NHL by points - regardless of conference.73
Swiss style triple elimination pudding.16

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