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A completely timely and topical examination of why the NHL playoff seeding makes no sense (Part 1)


One of these things is not like the other.


Yes, one of these things is not like the other.

(The Tigers are just starting their second month, the Lions are months away and the Red Wings are a couple months away from free agency. Instead of giving you something boring on Detroit teams, I blow up the current NHL system. If you don’t like it, well, screw you.)

I come writing to you on behalf of the America (and select cities of Canada) we all know and love. Our country (and possibly the select Canadian cities, I’m not well-versed in their history) was founded on the belief that if you work hard enough, you’ll end getting what you deserve. Yet, we still support a sport that holds the communist notion that no matter the ability or effort, all divisions get equal rations.

In this modern NHL, each division champion is automatically assured a top three seed in its conference no matter how bad they are. And make no mistake, this season two were absolutely terrible. The Phoenix Coyotes, champions of the Pacific Division, had the sixth best point total in the Western Conference. The same goes for the Florida Panthers in the East, winners of the Southeast and literally the worst team (in terms of wins and goal differential) to even qualify for the playoffs.

These two juggernauts got the No. 3 seed in their respective conferences, garnering them home ice advantage in the first round despite each playing a team that was flat-out better than them in the regular season.* If they advanced past the first round, the third seed assured them they avoided the highest seeded team in round two.

The whole thing made for a situation in which there was no advantage to a team finishing fifth instead of sixth. At least one person (this guy) was openly questioning why the Red Wings wouldn’t tank to play the champion of a division they dominated during the regular season. (14-5-1 against the division in general, 3-1 against Phoenix)

The current division-winners-get-the top-seeds-in-the-conference format wasn’t built for the current NHL. It stems from the NHL’s expansion to 18 teams in 1974. Adding the Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts (R.I.P.) caused the league to realign into two conferences (Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell), with two divisions each and expand the playoffs from 8 to 12 teams.**

An unbalanced number of teams in the playoffs caused the NHL to award division winners earned a first round bye. A subsequent expansion in 1979 increased the number of playoff teams to 16 but preserved division winners as automatic top seeds. It didn’t matter much in the simpler days of the two-division conference. Each division had a high enough percentage of the league’s teams to where it was impossible to have the pure and absolute terribleness we see year in and year out all concentrated in one area.

Yet, as the league kept expanding, eventually settling on the current six-division (three per conference structure), the golden rule remained. Like Brandon Inge’s time with the Tigers, automatically giving division winners the top seeds survived longer that it should have.

In the 13 years before the 1998 six-division format there were just four instances in which the division winner would have dropped more than one spot in the standings had seeding been determined only by points. In every case that team would have fallen from second to fourth. At the very least, it would’ve earned home-ice advantage in the first round.

The first year after the realignment, Carolina won the Southeast Division with 86 points, the seventh-highest total in the conference.

Had playoff seeding been determined solely by points in the 13 years since the six-division format was instituted, a division winner would have fallen more than one spot — from third to at least fifth — a total of 10 times. That’s rewarding a team with home-ice advantage in the first round when they didn’t deserve it 10 times.

Why reward the division winner at all? There is actually a valid reason: the unbalanced schedule.

A team plays, six games against each of the four teams in its division, four games against the remaining 10 teams in their conference, one game against 12 teams in the conference and then, randomly, two games against the three remaining teams in the opposing conference.

With nearly a third of a team’s games coming against their divisional counterparts, there should be some accolades for coming out on top of that. But even within the division there are differences. Each team plays a different three opponents from the opposite conference twice. Look at the Central Division.

Detroit’s two-time opponents in the Eastern Conference: Philadelphia (103 points), Washington (92), Buffalo (89).  That’s two playoff teams and a team that barely missed out on the final spot. St. Louis, meanwhile, played Pittsburgh (108), Tampa Bay (84) and Carolina (82). That’s one winning machine and two weaklings.

You could make the case that there’s an eight-point swing right there, which of course, would have changed who won the division. I won’t but somebody will.

Instead, I’ll just simply point out that it’s not the same. There are a number of different variables (amount of rest you can give players, difficulty of competition, intensity of the game) that could differs among the opponents.

If we’re going to reward a division winner, it should at least be on a level playing field. Right now, no one is equal. But even if we do make it the same, we’ve just established that the current prize is too much. So what’s the solution?

I’ll tell you on Friday.

*(I don’t care how the series went in the playoffs. This article isn’t about what happened once teams got to the playoffs but about how neither team deserved to be in the postseason situations they were put in.)

**(Which is totally ridiculous. Two-thirds of the league makes the playoffs after playing an 80-game regular season?)

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