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NHL's new playoff format not the problem, stacked Western Conference is

Anytime his St. Louis Blues face the Chicago Blackhawks or Colorado Avalanche, general manager Doug Armstrong doesn't consider it just a regular-season game in the Central Division.

"The way the season is, this season you're going, 'All right, let's play good tonight because it's not going to take very long before we see these guys,' " he said.

That's because the NHL's new division-centric playoff format is designed to build rivalries. If long-term hatred is the plus side, one negative—at least in the Western Conference—is that first-round matchups are guaranteed to eliminate at least one, if not two, legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

In each conference, the second- and third-place teams in each division have to play right away. And while that means two of the Blues, Blackhawks, Avalanche, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings won't make it, the point is that would've happened under the old format, too.

The problem, which originally looked like it would stem from 14 teams in the Eastern Conference and 16 in the West, is instead that six of the league's top eight teams reside in the Western Conference.

"This year there seems to be a little bit of an imbalance to the Western Conference point totals, so you're going to see good teams come out," Armstrong said this week at the general managers meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. "I think there's probably six teams in the Western Conference—and I might be shy one—that believe they should represent the West in the Stanley Cup final. The amazing thing is, half those teams aren't even going to make it to the second round."

Based on the standings through Thursday's games, the Avalanche and Blackhawks would play in the 2-3 Central Division matchup, while the Sharks and Kings would play in Pacific Division's series of death. The West's top seed, the Blues, would play the Dallas Stars in the other Central series, while the second-seeded Ducks would play the Minnesota Wild, who'd cross over to the Pacific.

Assuming the same two divisions under last year's 1 through 8 format, the matchups would be exactly the same.

In the East, there would be a few changes. The top-seeded Boston Bruins would still see the Philadelphia Flyers, but the Metropolitan Division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins would get the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs would play the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Tampa Bay Lightning would face the Montreal Canadiens.

Under the format in place for this and the next two seasons, the Penguins would draw the first wildcard, the Canadiens, the Leafs would play the Lightning in the Atlantic Division 2-3 series and the Rangers would see the Blue Jackets on the Metropolitan side.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, whose team has dropped three straight in the absence of gold-medal-winning goaltender Carey Price to fall into a wild-card spot, believes the perfect playoff format simply doesn't exist.

"Is it going to be tougher for the top teams in the West this in the first round this year? Maybe," he said. "But some think it's easier for them to get to the playoffs because they have only 14 teams. I don't know. The only thing I know is it shows how important it is to make the playoffs at first."

Before the season, commissioner Gary Bettman predicted that having 16 Eastern teams and 14 Western teams wouldn't make a big difference come playoff time.

"It's really the top five or six teams that are (competing for playoff spots)," he said in a September phone interview. "The best teams are going to rise to the top and make the playoffs, and that's been the case every year."

With anywhere from 14 to 17 games remaining, there are more teams in legitimate competition for playoff spots in the East than the West. But the bigger concern at this point is two high-end teams in the West won't get past the first round.

"This year it's not working out great for us—us I mean the Western Conference—but over time it will change," said Armstrong, whose Blues have opened up a six-point lead over the Avalanche and seven on the Blackhawks for tops in the Central Division.

"You hope over time the Eastern Conference, you know at some point they're going to be the dominant (side) and they're going to have those effects."

For now, those effects are bad for the Blackhawks, Avalanche, Kings and whichever between the Ducks and Kings that doesn't win the Pacific Division. The loser of each series is going to have a long off-season.

But Armstrong argued there are long-term benefits to those series.

"You don't want to lose that 2-3, but God is it going to create a rivalry and enhance those rivalries that are going to help you sell tickets, are going to get your fan base energized," he said. "Just thinking of L.A. and Anaheim and San Jose potentially playing year-in, year-out, what it's going to do for hockey in that state, what it's going to do to help grow the game? I think it's great."

It might not be so great for the game if a strong Cup contender like San Jose gets bounced so early.

"Good or bad for hockey, that's just the way it is," Armstrong said. "There's only one way to get the two best teams in the final and that's to re-seed every time, and it doesn't make business sense and it doesn't make logistical sense.

"The only ideal way, and it doesn't make any sense at all, would be to go 1 to 16 no matter where you are. But it's bad for travel, it doesn't make sense."

Under that far-fetched scenario, the same 16 teams would make the playoffs as under this format or last year's. But the potential Presidents' Trophy-winning Blues would face the Flyers in the first round, the Bruins would get the Rangers, the Ducks would get the Blue Jackets, the Sharks would get the Stars, the Penguins would get the Canadiens, the Avalanche would get the Lightning, the Blackhawks would get the Wild and the Kings would get the Leafs.

Because that's not going to happen and this format is locked in for at least two more seasons, all teams can do is prepare for what this new format brings. That includes tailoring a group of players to a specific style of play because there's an ability to anticipate matchups.

"I think you can build your team to get out of your division," Armstrong said. "I think we have a real good understanding of who we're going to play if everything holds true in the second round.

"The only fly in that ointment is if 4 beats 1, and then all of a sudden you're playing a team from the other division in your conference."

If a division champion goes out in the first round in either conference, that could open things up for improbable runs. That's why Bergevin and his colleagues realize the importance of just getting in, based on history and how hockey playoffs are.

Still, getting into the playoffs in the West is a tougher road. Sharks defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic believes that's because the standard has been set there by the Blackhawks and Kings.

"Out West people are building a team in order to beat those Stanley Cup winners," Vlasic said in Toronto in December. "To get out of the Western Conference final, you've got to beat one of those two teams. So teams out west are building themselves to beat those two teams.

"Out East that might not be the case, you're still looking at Boston/Pittsburgh, but the Stanley Cup winners have been Chicago/L.A. Out West, if you want to beat those teams, you have to build a better team."

It looks like more of those "better" teams are in the Western Conference, at least for this year. Who knows what the near future will hold?

"It's difficult in the West right now because for whatever reason we're gaining a lot more points and it looks like the stronger teams are coming from there," Armstrong said. "But I think that balances out."

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