It's time to tweak the playoff format

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Friday, March 17, 2017

Imbalance between divisions in the Eastern Conference is causing fans to be irritated with the playoff format this season.

The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, who are battling for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, rank behind the Metropolitan Division's top four teams in points.

But because of the current divisional/wild-card setup, the Atlantic Division winner -- which will be either Montreal, Ottawa or perhaps the surgingBoston Bruins-- will get to host a Metropolitan Division team. If the season ended today, that Metro team would be the New York Rangers, andthe Atlantic winner would have home-ice advantage despite finishing with fewer points than the Blueshirts.

Is it time to change things? The current agreement between the NHL and NHL Players' Association about the playoff format runs through the 2018-19 season -- although for all intents and purposes, if both sides wanted to change it before then, they certainly could.

The question is whether there is appetite to do so. It wasn't an official agenda matter at last week's general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Florida -- which is the platform where this kind of change would normally surface.

Having said that, during the GMs' smaller group sessions on the opening day of meetings, one of the assemblages did in fact discuss the playoff format during its open brainstorming session. The feeling in that smaller GM group, according to a source, was that it might be time for change. But that's as far as it got.

Another GM I spoke with who wasn't in that group doesn't see what the fuss is all about.

"It's all cyclical. Some years some divisions are stronger,'' he said, noting that he doesn't see an obvious need for change.

Well, I do. As I see it, the problem with today's format is that it can't decide what it wants to be. A true divisional playoff setup would mean no wild cards. A true conference playoff, like the NHL had before this format, would mean no divisional playoffs. Right now it's in between.

Some background: When the NHL realigned in 2012 and looked at the playoff format, its original proposal to the NHLPA featured four conferences, with four teams from each conference making the playoffs. The NHLPA balked because it felt that the two conferences that only had seven teams apiece would have an unfair competitive advantage over the teams and players in the two conferences with eight teams each. So the compromise was coming up with the wild-card setup we have today.

The solution lies in either going back to conference playoffs, wherein the top eight teams in each side make it (and the first-round matchups would be 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc.) like the NHL had just before this current format, or go full-fledged divisional playoffs like the 1980s. For those of us old enough to remember it, those divisional playoffs were unreal. Rivalries were born.

"Well, the Adams Division was very strong, so in the first two rounds, you had to beat some of the best teams in the league,'' Hall of Famer Michel Goulet, a former star left winger for the Quebec Nordiques, told

Goulet was also in the league when the NHL had its most radical playoff format in the early 1980s. That league-wide setup provided an unforgettable memory when the No. 14-ranked Edmonton Oilers, featuring a young, emerging core led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, upset the veteran, No. 3-seeded Canadiens in the opening round of the 1980-81 playoffs. The upstart Oilers swept Montreal in three games, as No. 99 dialed up five assists in the opener, which was a single-game playoff record at that time.

I don't believe that the NHL would ever consider going back to that format, though. The ridiculous travel it would require would be the No. 1 reason.

It's clear that Goulet, despite living through incredible moments in those Battle of Quebec playoff series, would rather not see the divisional playoff format return. "We should go back to 1 versus 8, 2 versus 7 within [the] conference,'' he said.

Goulet loves the divisional rivalries during the regular season, but feels the playoffs should be conference-wide.

"For example this year, eitherPittsburgh [Penguins] or Columbus [Blue Jackets] will lose in the first round if they play each other," he said. "But both had really great years."

Conference playoffs? Divisional playoffs? I'm good with either. Just not what the NHL has right now.