The Issues With the NHL Playoff Format

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The NHL playoff format has received constant criticism in recent memory for numerous reasons. It is imperfect, to say the least, however, it is better than the previous iterations of playoffs seeding.

NHL Playoff Format Issues

The History

Original 6

In the Original Six years, things seem like they would’ve been pretty simple, right? The first seed would play the sixth seed, second vs fifth, and third vs fourth seems pretty straightforward. Not to the NHL. They decided to have the first seed play the second seed, third vs fourth, and so on. This often rewarded teams that were worse with a seemingly better matchup in the first round. This trend would continue of tougher opponents for higher seeds until well into the expansion era.

Expansion Era

When the NHL expanded from 12 teams to 18 teams in 1974-75, four divisions were created. 12 teams would make the playoffs, and the top team from each division would get a bye. From there, the second and third-seeded teams in each division played and advanced as usual. This lasted all of three seasons, where Wild Card spots were introduced. The top two teams of each division stayed the same, the first one getting a bye and the second one playing a first-round opponent. The third spot was introduced as a Wild Card spot where teams who finished highest in the regular season would make the playoffs, regardless of division.

WHA Merger

With the merger with the WHA, the divisional match-ups were all but scrapped for the next two years. Now that the league was up to 21 teams, 16 would make the playoffs. The top of each division and 12 Wild Card spots. After that, the NHL changed to a seemingly reasonable divisional format where the top four teams of each division played each other in a 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 fashion.

Modern Day

Fast forward 12 years and you see a new change to the structure. It changed from divisional to conference-based and the top team in each division got home-ice advantage being seeded first and second, then the rest of the conference was seeded 3-8 based on regular season performance.

The next change that was made is the one everyone is now familiar with. In the 2013-14 season, it was changed to the current format of the playoffs, where the first, second and third teams in each division made the playoffs and then the two next highest performing teams in each conference earn a Wild Card spot regardless of division. And there’s a lot of errors with this format.

The Issues With the Current Format

Home-Ice Advantage

There are quite a few issues with the current seeding that have come forth in recent years. The first is in the 2016-17 season. It may seem minor on the surface, however, if repeated in the future it could have a more serious impact on the series.

In the 2017 NHL playoffs, the Ottawa Senators met the New York Rangers in the second round of the playoffs. During the season, the Senators finished second in the Atlantic Division, and the Rangers finished fourth in the Metropolitan, earning a Wild Card spot. The Senators and Rangers played out the series, Ottawa with the home-ice advantage.

Nothing weird there, but the key to this is the Rangers actually had a season of 104 points and the Senators had a season of 98 points, yet the Sens held the higher seed and home-ice advantage. Not a huge issue (such as missing the playoffs or receiving a poor matchup), but an issue nonetheless. Home-ice advantage can influence a game and series in numerous ways. The home team can send their players out second for a change while knowing who the opposition is sending out. There are also different benefits off the ice for the team, such as playing in front of your home crowd and not having to travel.

Difficult Early Round Match-ups

In 2017-18, the NHL saw the power of the top of the league shift from the Metro Division to the Atlantic. With three of the top six teams in the Atlantic between the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs, two of the three teams were destined to play each other in the first round, and then the remaining team would more than likely play each other in the second round, and that’s exactly what happened. The Leafs and Bruins faced off in Round One. Toronto, with 105 points, played Boston, with 112 points.

When Boston eventually beat Toronto in 7 games, they faced off in the second round against the Lightning. Two of the top-six teams guaranteed to be eliminated in the first two rounds of the playoffs. For a team like the Leafs, it would have been better to begin losing and drop to the first Wild Card spot where they could have faced the seemingly lesser Washington Capitals, who finished the season equal to the Leafs in points.

Better Teams Missing the Playoffs

The final issue in recent is one of the conferences. The West this season is significantly weaker than the East, and at this time the last place team in the West is just 6 points out of a playoff spot.

As Dom Luszczyszyn points out in the tweet above, the Carolina Hurricanes would have a significantly better chance of making the playoffs this season if they were in the West. Currently sitting at 62 points and just one point out of the second Wild Card spot, they would be tied for third in the Central Division and would be in the first Wild Card position if they were in the Pacific. So this likely means that the best 16 teams in the NHL will not all make the playoffs.

Suggestions for New Playoff Seeding

With the issues clearly outlined based on the Wild Card format, and issues of both divisional play and conference play, there are a number of different formats that can be implemented to have a more balanced playoffs.


The first, and possibly most simple option, would be to change it to a true divisional matchup with 1-4 of the division making the playoffs with 1v4 and 2v3, respectively. This isn’t a big change so it leaves many of the previous issues in place. Toronto and Boston still would have faced off in the first round in 2018, and a team like Carolina would be left out, but this would potentially fix the issues with home ice advantage for the first two rounds.

Conference Based

This idea is one that has been done before, and it seemingly worked. Basing the playoff format off the standings in the conference, 1-8. This then fixes the issue of having to face a strong opponent for doing well. It also changes the home ice issue for every round. However, there is still the issue of a better team in the league missing the playoffs based on their location, and this effectively eliminates the need for divisions and potential divisional rivalries (the main reason for switching to the current format).

League Wide Standings

The last format that might work would be to do a league-wide format of 1-16. This resolves all of the issues presented above and rewards teams for doing well and guarantees the 16 best teams would make the playoffs. However, it does very little for the entertainment factor. We’d see even fewer rivalry match-ups than in the conference based format, and it would be a mess scheduling wise. Forcing to have up to three days off between games for travel if teams on opposite ends of the continent played, such as the Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens.

Pick Your Playoff Opponent

This concept is new, but one that’s been suggested by fans. For the two conferences to pick their own opponent. The top four teams of a single conference would do basically a draft of their playoff opponents. It was adopted first in North America by the Southern Professional Hockey League when the commissioner, Jim Combs, met with the commissioner of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, or EBEL, in Austria. The top four teams would pick their first-round opponents in order of standings. Many things could happen here, either by picking the easiest opponent first for an easy matchup, or hardest to get them out of the way.

The NHL could potentially televise the event of announcing their opponents and monetize it. This would eliminate the blaming of the format for facing tough opponents as well as provide the opportunity to play mind games with their opponent. Either by selecting a good team first and making them think that they were chosen for an easy playoff start, or selecting rivals for the first round of the series. The second round of the series would be based on the regular season standings.

Final Thoughts

The NHL Playoffs have had a wonky history of seeding, and it seems there is the no true way to eliminate every possible error of the playoff formatting, however, the “Pick Your Opponent” seems the most interesting and fun in a league that is typically very uptight. It would allow your team to actually have something to fight for by climbing from third to second rather than just home ice advantage and see no change to the playoff matchup.

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