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Shea-ved Ice: NHL Misses Mark With New Playoff Format

By: Casey Shea
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have won nine straight games and, barring a major meltdown, they will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring.

However, this will be the last time we see this current playoff format – at least through the 2015-16 season when things will be reassessed.

The reason for this is because of the league’s new realignment plan, which was passed last week.

First of all, realignment in some regard needed to take place with the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg. For the second straight season, the Jets have been playing out of the Southeast Division, which in my opinion, is completely unfair.

While the division has been one of the weaker ones in hockey for many years, it’s unrealistic to think that having a team in central/western Canada playing an East Coast schedule won’t affect them at some point with the sheer amount of travel involved.

Naturally, the Jets needed to be moved to the Western Conference, but that presents an issue of unbalanced conferences, which is a problem right?

Apparently not.

Not only did the Jets get moved to the West, but the Blue Jackets and Red Wings are now in the Eastern Conference. This means, there will be 16 teams in the Eastern Conference with only 14 being out west.

The Penguins remain largely unaffected by the changes as the Atlantic Division is essentially just adding Columbus, Carolina and Washington.

Now, I understand Detroit and Columbus wanting to be in the Eastern Conference because they are in the Eastern Time Zone. They have a valid argument, there’s no question. I just don’t understand how the Eastern Conference teams aren’t fighting this realignment plan tooth and nail.

Under the new plan, the East will feature two, eight-team divisions, while the West will have two, seven-team divisions.

Eight teams from each conference will still make the playoffs, with a new wrinkle built in.

See where I’m going with this?

Statistically speaking, half of the teams in the East will make the playoffs each year. However, out west, eight out of 14 teams (57 percent) will make the playoffs.

Now, let’s take this another step.

The top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs. The final two slots will be “wild cards,” which are given to the two remaining teams with the highest point totals in the conference. It’s entirely possible that one division could send five teams to the playoffs and I’m fine with that.

The only thing I don’t like under the current format is how the lowest ranked division winner gets an automatic 3-seed in the playoffs when other teams in the conference have more points. Last year for example, the Florida Panthers won the Southeast Division with 94 points and Boston won the Northeast Division with 102 points.

Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Jersey all had over 100 and were ranked 4 through 6 for the playoffs.

Florida should have been the 6-seed, while Boston would have been the 4-seed if you ranked them solely on points and tie-breakers.

In this regard, I’m happy this won’t happen anymore.

However, isn’t it conceivable that the wild card teams could have more points than the teams who qualified in the other division?

So, has the problem above even been resolved?

The new format will be a 1 vs. 4 system in each division with the division winners meeting in the conference finals.

It’s even entirely possible that the 2 and 3-seeds in Division A could have more points than the Division B winner.

If that happens, under the divisional playoff format, the teams with more successful regular seasons will have a rougher time advancing through the playoffs.

In this new scenario, the highest ranked division winner based on regular season points gets the lowest ranked wild card.

That doesn’t prevent them from having to play the second best team in the conference in the second round of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, a mediocre Division B gets rewarded for having the bottom half of the conference qualifiers? How is that good for the game when the playoffs are the league’s biggest draw?

Here’s what the playoffs would have looked like in the first round last year with these new divisions. Point totals are in parentheses:

Division A – 1 New York Rangers (109), 2 Pittsburgh (108), 3, Philadelphia (103), 4 Washington (92)

Division B – 1 Boston (102), 2 Detroit (102), 3 Florida (94), 4 New Jersey (102)

Notice how the top three seeds in the conference are all in the same division, or how Florida still gets a higher seed than a wild card?

This makes no sense at all.

Again, the conference’s best two teams from the regular season have no business meeting in the second round.

Not to mention, while Pens vs. Flyers is always fun in the playoffs, would you really want to see it every year? Because that’s the type of thing that this new format promotes.

At least in the Eastern Conference the odds of that happening are a little less with the two extra teams.

Out West though, let’s assume four teams make it from each division. Again, four teams from a seven-team division. There are only so many combinations there before it becomes repetitive and stale.

I’m all for giving new things a try, but why not just improve upon the current playoff format? I just don’t see how this new proposed format will enhance the playoff product.

The only way this is an improvement is that the league will be cutting down on travel expenses in both the regular season and playoffs.

I’ll try and keep an open mind about this going into next season, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to do so.

At this point, I’m hoping the NHL ditches this after the 2015-16 season and makes simple tweaks to the current system.

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice

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