NHL realignment: The Wild Cards vs. the Play-In Games

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

Everyone seems rather pleased with the geography in the NHL’s realignment proposal, which of course means the NHLPA will probably derail it to just to give Bettman the Fehr Anger Shakes again.

But if the union’s OK with the shifting rivalries and added travel, the real pickle is the playoffs.

The current proposal has:

• Four divisions, two with eight teams and two with seven teams.

• The top three teams in each division qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

• The next two teams with the highest point totals in their conference qualify for the playoffs, no matter their division. Which means one division could have three playoff teams while the other has five.

• Here’s where it gets a little complicated. The fourth and fifth-place teams in one division can both qualify for the playoffs, and “the club with fewer points would play the higher-seeded No. 1” in the conference. An example:

Using the current standings and proposed realignment: Montreal, Boston and Ottawa would be in; Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Philadelphia would be in; Toronto and Detroit would be the other two playoff teams. Because the Toronto Maple Leafs (24 points) have a better record than the Detroit Red Wings (21 points), and the Montreal Canadiens (29 points) have a better record than the Pittsburgh Penguins (26 points), it would be the Habs and the Wings in the first round of the divisional playoffs, with the Leafs sliding over to face the Penguins in Round 1 in the Atlantic.

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Do you dig the “wild card” format? Or is there a better, just as equitable way of doing this?

Elliotte Friedman discussed the politics of seeding on CBC Sports:

What it does mean, though, is if a team crosses over, it stays there. So, let's say the Oilers finish fourth in the Pacific next year, but get to the playoffs as the "remaining team" with the most points. And say Chicago wins the Midwest (ahead of St. Louis and Nashville) and has fewer points than Pacific winner Vancouver. The Oilers technically become a Midwest Division club. They would play the Blackhawks in the first round and, with a win, the Blues or Predators in the second.

It wouldn't be a surprise if the league wasn't 100 per cent thrilled with this solution, because it might hurt the development of some divisional rivalries. But, it also increases the possibility of, say, Vancouver vs. Chicago. What it also proves is that players will accept the possibility of worse travel if it means a better chance at the playoffs, as suspected when the first re-alignment attempt was nixed last season.

Using the previous example of the Eastern Conference and the current standings, your playoff seeds in the East would be:

1. Montreal Canadiens (29 points) 1. Pittsburgh Penguins (26 points)
2. Boston Bruins (26 points) 2. New Jersey Devils (24 points)
3. Ottawa Senators (26 points) 3. Philadelphia Flyers (21 points)
4. Detroit Red Wings (21 points) 4. Toronto Maple Leafs (24 points)

What this format does is allow compensate for the unbalanced divisions by allowing a stronger one to overwrite a weaker one’s last playoff seed. This is actually something fans were clamoring for 25 years ago: Whether it was the New York Rangers watching the Hartford Whalers – three games under .500! – qualify over them in 1988 or the Calgary Flames getting screwed in 1992-93, the divisional playoffs could sometimes be inequitable.

It also serves as a hybrid between divisional playoffs – where blood feuds are born – and the quirky conference playoff format that made for strange bedfellows at times. It’s a way to have the repetitious series like the Flyers and Devils meeting for the umpteenth time, and something fresher like the Leafs vs. Penguins (and not just because the Leafs are actually in the playoffs).

It’s a format that could work … but is there a better option?

I can’t get the idea of expanding the playoffs out of my head. Having the four and five seeds in a given division playing a 3-game series, or even a 1-game play-in, would expand the playoff pool without hurting the integrity of the 16-team tournament.

Again, using the current standings:

1. Montreal Canadiens (29 points) 1. Pittsburgh Penguins (26 points)
2. Boston Bruins (26 points) 2. New Jersey Devils (24 points)
3. Ottawa Senators (26 points) 3. Philadelphia Flyers (21 points)
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (24 points) 4. Carolina Hurricanes (19 points)
5. Detroit Red Wings (21 points) 5. Tampa Bay Lightning (19 points)

Detroit and Toronto in a play-in series, to determine who plays Montreal? Wowzer.

This format would not only expand the playoffs, but keep things simpler: The divisional playoffs are playoffs within the division, rather than having all of these crossovers. Familiarity can breed contempt.

It would also give the NHL some added time to hype the Stanley Cup Playoffs and allow teams a few extra days of rest before the tournament. Neither of these things would be a negative.

Also, TV will love them. Big time. And why realign if not for television?

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are nearly perfect as-is, mind you, so anything the NHL does shouldn’t monkey around too much with the 16-team war for the Chalice. Expanding the playoffs is a touchy subject; hence, the proposed realignment doesn’t. But a play-in game would, and would do so in a responsible way that doesn’t blow up the current playoff seeding.

I’m fine either way. I’m just bummed we won’t get to see the final four teams reseeded as was previously proposed, because I rather love the idea of Vancouver having to go through Boston in the semifinal and then play Chicago for the Cup.

Which do you prefer: Wild Card or Play-In Games?

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