Contenders Face Early Exits in New NHL Playoff Format

If you're an NHL general manager in the Eastern Conference, you're probably looking at the potential playoff matchups and thanking your lucky stars that you're not dealing with the first-round dilemma facing teams on the other side of the continent.

As I write this, the top five teams in the Western Conference — St. Louis, Colorado, Chicago, Anaheim, and San Jose — could all be leading the Metropolitan division. In the Atlantic division, only the Boston Bruins would be in the mix.

To say there's a disparity in the quality of play between conferences is an understatement. And if the NHL decided to stick with the playoff system from previous years, the Western Conference seedings would be properly stacked, ensuring one heck of a 4 vs. 5 battle while the top three seeds faced the weaker siblings of the conference.

This year, however, things are different. Along with the league's realignment, the Stanley Cup playoffs have been reformatted into two divisional rounds, one conference round, and then the awarding of the Stanley Cup. Decades ago, the league played to a similar format, which may appease some traditionalists, but the problem is that the talent pool and the quantity of teams is far bigger. This format essentially punishes teams for being in a strong division.

Take the Central Division, for example. Let's say the playoff teams are, in order, St. Louis, Chicago, Colorado, and Dallas (wild card). In previous seasons, there would be a good chance that Chicago and Colorado faced weaker teams for a more predictable first round romp. This year, St. Louis pulls the easier draw while the Blackhawks and the Avalanche face each other. In the second round, the division champion is crowned. In the third round, the winners of the divisions face off in the conference final.

There are pros and cons to this system. On one hand, it lends a greater element of unpredictability to the second round, and teams that seem relatively poised for a strong postseason run can get squeezed out early. On the other hand, it feels like the gap between stronger and easier draws to the Stanley Cup might be a little bit too much.

The logistics of travel and time zones make geographical Western and Eastern conferences necessary for playoffs. But breaking things up into micro-divisions for two rounds of playoff action feels like it's too focused for its own good. In addition to saving on travel costs, the league is looking at pumping up divisional rivalries as a means to drum up regular season interest — and all of that makes sense from a business perspective. However, the potential lack of balance this throws into the first round each year doesn't seem to be a worthy trade off.

Nonetheless, this is what we're stuck with, at least for the foreseeable future. But with a strong possibility that two 100+ point teams will be knocked out in the first round, perhaps GMs will rethink whether or not the unbalanced format is worth the business benefits.

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